Strategic? No. Interactive? Nope. Forum? ROFLMAO!!

Attention Conservation Notice: This tl;dr post is about a bad-but-interesting climate meeting that happened in Adelaide on 23 May. Hopeless format, of course, and lots of ego-foddering instead of network weaving. So it goes… Notes from the speeches and Q and A, analysis of who would have been happy/unhappy. Ideas for improvements were to be scattered throughout and at the (bitter) end, but given the inordinate length of this post (almost tl:dw), I will do have done a second post, entitled “A funny thing could have happened on the way to the forum.” Betcha canna wait.

Seems to me that the word “forum” has gone the way of “sustainable” and “green.” It has been used so wrongly, so often, by so many as to be emptied of all hope, inspiration or meaning. (Which is in turn a bit like the foot soldiers in the climate movement; endlessly cajoled to into marches of folly…. But I am getting ahead of myself. Facts first, bile second, as my old ivy-covered journalism professors told me.)

What I sat through was not a forum, but rather a set of speeches from a panel, followed by Q and A. That can be ok, but should never be mis-advertised. Its title was “Political Strategy and the Price Tag on Pollution.” It had been called at relatively short notice (3 weeks) and brought together four groups that – on reading between the lines – hadn’t been on speaking terms of late. There were about 65 people in the room (see demographics box below.)

The format was predictably and (un)forgivably (footnote 1) dire. There was no effort at encouraging mingling, no effort at a temperature check, a warm up exercise (“turn to the person behind you and decide what one thing you would do about climate change if you were Julia Gillard for a day”), no attempt to find out what the audience knew, wanted to know, wanted to talk about, where they came from politically, geographically etc. We were just treated as lumps (footnote 2).

Nope, after a brief acknowledgment of country we were straight into a panel of four speakers. It was an hour later before anyone from the audience got a word in edgeways. And this is “interactive”?!? God help us all if they ever decide to be prescriptive and top-down.

Here are the edited jottings I made about each of the four speakers and a few impressions (followed by the crushing predictability of the Q and A). Each speech was supposed to be 10 minutes (but Trots don’t obey that sort of thing – they think it’s only for liberals and other bourgeois running dogs) and to tackle the issue of the Carbon Price and ‘political strategy’.

The first speaker was called Rob(footnote 3). He’s a high-up in the Conservation Council South Australia, who’s been at this since 1986. He pointed out taxes are usually for revenue raising purposes, and that we don’t know if it would “work”. He looked at the alternatives like an emissions trading scheme (which the proposed tax will morph into after a couple of years anyway). He seemed rather taken with the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme. If lots of exemptions, it will be pointless, he pointed out.
He recounted a recent meet with the Federal Climate Minister (Greg Combet) recently who wasn’t particularly precise on the subject of phasing out coal-fired power stations.
He then talked about the Climate Commission report that had been published earlier in the day. He claimed we have to cut emissions by 40% by 2020 to hit two degrees (seems not to have read Anderson and Bows 2008).
Final point was on Australian Government’s standing in the UNFCCC negotiations and how it is “a bit of an embarrassment”.

On the climate movement/strategy question, he had been unhappy by the level of support for Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
He mentioned a new “in the tent” grouping of policy wonkery called the PAC-11 grouping (I’ve looked online with no success).
And he boosted a new report called “Green Our Grid” and mentioned that everyone in the room would probably agree with the shutting down of the Playford D coal-fired power station in Port Augusta, which he said was the dirtiest power station per unit of energy produced in Australia.

The second speaker was a guy called Jimmy, from Clean SA (which had not bothered to advertise this meeti… sorry, forum, on their website. Smell of death, much?)
His take was that a carbon tax was “a good start but not enough” and the main danger would be a conversion from coal to gas, rather than renewables. He mentioned coal seam gas and the Victorian Government has just approved the Hazelwood Power Station (really filthy). He also talked about nuclear power.
On the “movement” question he talked about work they’re doing in Port Augusta with email campaigns and door-knocking. He wanted to see more community engagement, bored high school kids, continue with marches, cheap public transport and everyone getting the “Beyond Zero Emissions” speaker training.

The third speaker was Gemma from Socialist Alliance or Alternative (I don’t have it straight in my head).
She started by saying the next 10 years are crucial (actually, I think the last 10 years were crucial, or possibly the 10 before that. We – as activists and more broadly as a species – blew it. So it goes. I guess we’d agree that the point is to continue on the assumption that we may have longer to turn this around than we think.)
She didn’t like the tax so much because it is hard-wired to become an emissions trading scheme and the EU version of that meant huge windfall profits for polluters. She cited the BZE figures that if the carbon price would need to be $70 a tonne to get a shift towards wind, and $200 a tonne to get the solar set up they are advocating. As it stands, a lower price would be a regressive tax that meant middle-class folk could do OK with their solar panels and hybrid cars, but the poor would get screwed (my phrasing).
She talked about the need for positive campaigns, large-scale renewables in public ownership, free public transport and the need for “education and messaging”. Fairly typical top-down information-deficit model stuff, as you’d expect from socialists.
Her answer for the movement was, of course, mass mobilisation. More education, but … more than lobbying we need a Big March. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing.
My main problem here was that while the other speakers had the respect for the organisers and the audience to keep to their allotted 10 minutes, this representative of the Vanguard Party just kept going and going and going, despite the gestures from the chair, who eventually capitulated. It’s simples: if you can’t keep to your agreements on such a simple matter, why should anyone devote their limited time and energy to your organisation?

The final speaker
was in many ways the best, despite the crushingly reformist character of what he had to say and his obvious use of debating team tactics and rhythms. He was Joel, from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Most of what they do is focussed on lobbying (Federal) politicians. Predictably enough, he was therefore a proponent of getting a tax in place.
He started out unpromisingly with the notion that we “jettison ideology” (that appeal to ‘common sense’ usually means capitulation to the dominant paradigm, be it market or state or religious – I don’t think he has read his Gramsci yet) and the second idea that we “put a safe climate front and centre
To do this, he felt, we should support the carbon price and then try to raise it once it was in.
He said that getting to the agreed (lots of renewables) destination wasn’t a straight line but meant travelling through “hills, valleys and marshes”.
He also – naughtily and counter-productively, IMHO – tried to frame compromise as a sign of “maturity.” I think he got away with it – everyone was more interested in playing Happy Families than in tearing strips off each other in public.
He had four reasons why it was a good strategy to support the tax (which, he pointed out, emerged from the Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change)
1) It is a wedge issue for the Liberals
2) Carbon price strengthens proponents and weakens opponents
3) Massive win for the narrative (after defeats around Copenhagen and CRPS)
4) Carbon price is achievable

This is all true, but it strikes me as an example of the drunken man looking for his keys under a streetlight not because he lost them there, but because that’s where the visibility is best.

By now it was 7pm. We were halfway through the event, and of the 65ish people in the room only 5 had spoken. That is, in my book, a complete catastrophe.

Anyhow, there was some brief discussion about whether to have panelists respond to each other’s points or go to questions. A compromise was voted on of 10 mins Q and A and then… This promising but abortive outbreak of collective decision-making died under the weight of questions. If only we’d started like that?

Question Time
The first question was a bizarre one about “I heard the carbon price was going to have to be $300” to get renewables going. Er, no.
The second was “why not wave power?” from someone who had heard something about it on the radio. Joel from AYCC pointed out wave power couldn’t be brought to market very quickly.
The third question was about nuclear, by a guy clutching a little sign saying “Nuclear is the answer”. He got short shrift from all the panelists. Well, I say short, but it was actually quite long. And boring.
Rob pointed out that the price of renewables is dropping, and that once you’ve built the infrastructure, you don’t need to keep shoveling uranium/coal/oil/gas into it.
Some English guy then pointed out that the UK and EU’s emissions reductions targets are an accounting trick because they sent their heavy industry to China, and the figures being thrown around don’t include embedded carbon. He asked each of the panelists to imagine they could give a sentence of advice to their younger selves.
Joel said that initially he got involved with a bunch of groups that weren’t effective, and his advice to his younger self would be “find people who are building a movement.” (He may need to keep looking)
Rob talked about Copenhagen and said – with regards to his 1988-9 self “You don’t change the world’s economic paradigm without a hell of a battle”. He considered himself skeptical, disillusioned but battling.
Gemma of the Socialists called it a weird question, because individual actions don’t change the direction of the climate movement (Footnote 4). She offered the continuation of public education campaigns after the peak public awareness of climate change.
Jimmy kinda rambled, reflecting on how at least you knew where you were with Johnnie “No” Howard, whereas Rudd said all the right things and did zilch.

The next question was the first from a woman, and a good ‘un. She wanted the panel to talk about the best way to motivate people to change their behavior. Current campaigning seemed to be relying on people’s (unreliable) consciences.
Joel opined that you need to say how dire it is but then give positive actions that could be taken. He was also keen that ethical arguments still get used, since they are compelling narratives.
Rob suggested looking at who is being addressed – the already sold, the intransigent deniers or the soft-middle. He mentioned the Snowy Mountain River Hydro scheme as an example of collective action for the benefit of Australia.
Gemma said that taxes don’t motivate them and were a reputational risk (my phrase) for the movement. When asked by Joel what DOES motivate, she spoke of reading Climate Code Red and going to a big climate meeting. How to get folks involved? Scare them and then get them to (direct quote) “come along to rallies.” (Me, I was howling with laughter at this point, on the inside anyhow.)
Jimmy reflected movingly on how for a long time he didn’t take action because he had felt he didn’t know enough.

At this point (approx 7.25) the chair tried to move discussion on to the “Climate Strategy” question. With limited success.
Most of the questions seemed to focus on how to cope with denialism
“Just show it for what it is”
“Meet people where they are at”
Say to them “it’s already happening” or “summer of disasters” or “97% of climate scientists agree” or “oceans are acidifying”. Yeah, talking to people like that has been working SO well so far, hasn’t it. When you’re in a hole, just redouble your efforts, keep digging, and everything will be just fine. Not.

Then we had a woman advocating action on food and sustainability.
And a man rattling off some numbers about I know not what
And someone advocating hitching climate change to anti-militarism.
Someone else having turned up at their first meeting since before Copenhagen and, um…

And.. well, I’m trying to get across the nightmare nature of the whole thing… Succeeding?

Questions on putting pressure on state government instead (agreement on this – Port Augusta is going to be the next focus, it seems)
Question on is there any vision being put forward in the mainstream media (which the questioner admitted he didn’t follow). Could have butted in with agentic deadlock, but didn’t…
Someone from AYCC saying we should talk up Carbon Tax as regressive (there’s obviously no love lost between AYCC and the Comrades!) because it might be progressive after all.

Final statements
There seemed to be enthusiasm for everyone working on this power station in Port Augusta. But that’s not a strategy, that’s just a campaign. And the idea that you do strategy in an open meeting full of random punters in two hours alongside a technical discussion of the carbon price is, um, optimistic, anyhow.
There seemed to be enthusiasm for a “mass mobilisation” on September 24, as part of the 350.org stuff.

Assessment
So, two hours and what do we have? The panelists seemed relieved that they had all got through the evening without killing each other, (one of them said that even a few months ago a public meeting of the groups wouldn’t have been possible.)
Of the 70 people, instead of 4 speaking for 60 per cent of the time and another 12 or so speaking 40 percent of the time and the remaining 55 speaking NOT AT ALL. And this is interactive?
No, this is ego-foddering

Who comes away happy?
The speakers – each performed well (at what they set out to do, a slightly different proposition from doing well on broader criteria). And they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t get a little ego-jolt from that. Let’s hope each is honest enough to know that jolt, to name it and contain it.
The sponsoring organisations – got their names before the crowd. (How did I find out about this event? Well, ironically from the calendar maintained by the one group that might usefully have been there that wasn’t – the Australian Green Party, who are advocating this carbon tax alongside Labor.)

Who comes away screwed-as-usual?

* Anyone who attended with trepidation, shyness or unanswered questions. Anyone who might have opened up and made useful contributions or learnt something if the atmosphere had been nurturing and encouraging. How many more times will those people come back?
* The polar bears, the biosphere generally and untold unborn generations of Bipedal Meat. The usual suspects, in other words.

There’s a climate rally on June 5 called “Say Yes“. I shall go along to be Eeyore there too. Won’t that be fun…

Other Dwight Towers posts (but just click on the tags meetings or movement-building for the full tedious gamut.)
It’s not you, it’s us
Climate Rally Speech I’ll never give
Take your bloody marches and shove them up your arse

Other reading
Excellent Tim Kastelle blog post on network weaving, not network structure

Footnotes
Footnote 1 I don’t blame the very young (to me) people who put it together. They are merely doing it as they’ve experienced it. I blame the older activists who have never bothered to reflect and innovate. (Sorry if that sounds patronising to the young).

Footnote 2 The venue was not conducive , but a tiered-lecture theatre is a challenge, not an excuse.

Footnote 3 I didn’t catch everyone’s surname, so am putting this all on a first-name basis.

Footnote 4 Trotskyists are rarely, in my experience, particularly reflective, and certainly are allergic to admitting error in a public setting.

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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