The Smugosphere and the climate movement

Attention Conservation Notice: A far superior essay has been written on this topic (of the gap between our rhetoric and our reality). It appeared in Do or Die Seven, under the title of “Global Warming: No-one Ever is to Blame” It had a profound effect on my thinking (without, sadly, having improved it). Fifteen years or so after it was written, it is still fresh and sharp.

What is the Smugosphere?

The smugosphere, for those of you who’ve been so lucky as not to have seen the youtube video on the topic, is “the protective fog of (unjustified) self-congratulation and complacency that surrounds any “community” of people claiming to be making the world a better place, but which lacks any commonly accepted and utilised measures of success and failure.” It’s the place where deeds are done not so much because they might actually have a positive effect on the world but because they will raise the status or self-esteem of the person/group doing them.

The term “Smugosphere” is a typically gentle and coalition-building phrase. Nothing succeeds, in my experience, like calling people smug. They take it really well.

How did it apply to Climate Camp?

For me, Climate Camp took a crucial choice without ever really knowing it. In October 2006 the “what next” decision – about whether to have another camp in 2007, was stampeded through thanks to some artful facipulation [manipulative facilitation]. At no point did the dangers of such a choice – the addiction to media attention, the black-hole effect of national action sucking energy and bandwidth away from local action, among other things – ever get thrashed out.

Things like the “NGO-ification” of Climate Camp – whined about in the infamous Kingsnorth open letter of 2008, were a foregone conclusion, once the annual camp meme took over. People who loved climate camp – and it was loveable, and life-changing – wanted another hit of the same powerful drug. And people were developing skills that they wanted to hone. It didn’t hurt that status came with those skills…

The clue is in the name

On reflection, the very name climate camp was a problem. Perhaps, if we’d called ourselves “one off climate-camp” or “converge and then disperse” or “reconvene every two years with loads of local stuff in between and the media can go fuck itself in the meantime” then we might have done better. Absent a Tardis and a time paradox, we’ll never know.

Those with charisma, and knowledge of how to do these things, and time, soon came to dominate. They saw no distinction between their needs and desires and the needs of a movement that could reach beyond the usual collection of ideologically-driven anarchos and greens, well-meaning hippies, opportunistic careerists, bewildered but energetic students and the like that always come to these sorts of things.

I knew Climate Camp was dead on many occasions, but one that brought it home to me quite powerfully, in either 2007 or 2008, was attending a local group “post-camp debrief” and finding only 15 people or so, mostly usual suspects. And in this “non-hierarchical” (cough cough) group, 3 people did sixty percent or so of the talking, another 4 did about 30 percent and half the people said not a word. And this, I kept getting told, was a “participatory” movement.

Deja vu all over again

Haven’t we seen this somewhere else? A self-selected clique that remains stable over a long time, with large numbers of people churning through – becoming involved and then either becoming part of the core or buggering off. Isn’t this a remarkably similar model to the very NGOs who are routinely derided as the mediators of dissent?

At this point, I have to confess that Climate Camp is far from the only offender. Transition Towns went up like a rocket and down like a stick, and Campaign against Climate Change is holding ever-smaller annual marches and ever-more-boring meetings (something I thought impossible – shows what I know). The difference is that Climate Camp was forever loudly proclaiming it was different, and better. It’s the false-advertising that sticks in the craw.

What will happen next?

For climate action? It’s really hard to say, of course. The next round of austerity cuts (and the one after) will bring more people out on the streets. But the main desire will be to keep things as they are – to defend the public sector. That’s fine, and we should do that, but it’s a long long way from the sort of radical transformation of our economy and – dread-term – “lifestyles” that were needed to reduce emissions to give us some chance of avoiding a two degree global temperature rise. And it certainly isn’t going to get us on the path to resilient communities.

Presumably there’ll be an upsurge in activity around the Thames Estuary airport, should it get built. And new nukes. But all of this activity will take place against a back drop of recrimination and suspicion and “once-bitten, twice-shy” around nationally co-ordinated climate action…

But, as my leninist friends – of whom I have none – would say,

What is to be done?”

Buggered if I know. It seems exceptionally futile to me to demand that those individuals and mutually-supporting cliques who are to blame (and don’t forget, No-one Ever is to Blame) wake up, admit to themselves and others what they’ve been doing and agree to change their ways. Like the capitalists and their elected stooges, they’re benefiting from the status quo. Why would they launch a revolution against themselves, and anyhows, wouldn’t that be like what Vladimir Putin is doing now – getting some of his mates to stand “against” his party in the next elections, for the appearance of reform?

The only thing I do know is what I want to do, am trying to do. That involves ignoring the big picture – far too dispiriting and dis-visioning – getting on with what’s in front of me. That involves setting achievable short-term goals that have some hope of bringing new people on board, as individuals.
If you stuck a gun to my head (non-violently) and said “starting NOW, what would you do to get climate change back on the agenda nationally” I guess I would sweat and blubber and then blurt out something like –

a) challenge and replace the culture of activism that demands people are “fully committed” to stupid boring meetings without specific jobs being available for them to do

b) devise formal structures (gasp) that prevent the unelected cliques to get their way without a measure of accountability. This would involve turning meetings into genuine opportunities to meet and discuss, rather than treating those who come as ego-fodder.

c) pick winnable battles that are likely to bring “us” (“climate activists”) into fruitful dialogue/collaboration with people looking at job cuts, energy bills, biodiversity etc. And then to listen as much as we talk.

d) never ever EVER let the sexiness of appearing in the newspapers/tellie etc distract us from the task of movement-building, and never confuse column inches with a real success metric.

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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2 Responses to The Smugosphere and the climate movement

  1. Jack Ellis says:

    Thanks for the ‘No-one is to blame’ link – there’s a real tension between that stuff and the ‘personal action is not enough’ arguments – like this one:

    (It’s like the joke defense of the accused man – “My crimes are society’s fault, your honour…” versus Thatcher’s “No such thing as society” – neither is convincing)

    But if we’re left feeling that peronal lifestyle change is onanistic withdrawal from ‘the struggle’… and much of activism is just another brand of mutual masturbation… what’s left?

    • dwighttowers says:

      What’s left? Well, trying to make the activism less masturbatory and more fun… Things like achievable short term goals, new formats that don’t allow the same old voices to be loudest [and often only ones heard], the same old pathologies. Mistakes will be made, but not the same old ones… Just deck-chairs on the Titanic though, isn’t it? If you look at the data on climate change, it’s clear we are completely screwed.

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