After 3 years of grappling with what we can do about climate change, I’ve come around to a simple perspective:
The way we respond to climate change, and any challenges we’re facing, is organizing in our communities.
This is nothing new. Communities around the world have organized to overcome challenges for millennia. Bonobos make love to build relations. Whales cross oceans to birth in warm waters. Human communities organize to survive, share knowledge, live in relation with each other and the non-human world, advance equality, dismantle injustice, and make decisions about our futures together.
Make our futures together.
This isn't anything new, but it also seems to be a lost practice in many of our communities. And yet, when confronted with challenges head on, organizing is what we do. When the pandemic started, communities around the world organized mutual aid and food banks. When fires, and floods, and storms hit, communities organize to survive. When polluters and extractors encroach on lands they don’t belong, communities organize resistance, form coalitions, and defend their sovereignty and rights to self-determination.
As we face distributed and often invisible challenges like rising temperatures, wealth inequality, deforestation, the extinction of non-human relatives, and plastic all around us — how will we respond?
Earlier this year, I built a tool for just that — to help people coordinate sustainable transitions in their communities. It sounds great, even as I type it. It was missing an important piece of wisdom, however, about how we make things happen in reality:
Connection before agenda.
Organizing is a process. It requires trust, relationship building, listening, and sharing perspectives. At first glance, it can seem easier and more straightforward to skip the human stuff, and just apply solutions that we “know” (so we think) can solve problems:
Every community has a plastic problem. Here’s an open-source machine to recycle plastic in backyards, that every community can use!
Honestly, every community probably could use it ... Source: The Metabolizer, Sam Smith
Though applying solutions seems the most direct route to creating change, there are a few reasons why this approach may be flawed — and why the practice of connection before agenda, could be more straightforward than we think ...
First, each of us have limited perspectives. By listening, connecting, and sharing perspectives with others, we can see more of the world and more possibilities. In the words of Donella Meadows, the ability to change paradigms (ways we see the world) is the most impactful change we can make.
If we can evaluate and explore more perspectives, we’ll have more possibilities to choose from, which gives us the opportunity to find better courses of action.
As David Graeber puts it, when we’re working together to solve problems, "our differences are a resource" — because diversity of thinking means more ways to get things done.
Second, there is a difference between technological capacity and adaptive capacity. Knowing the right thing to do is not the same as knowing how to adapt. Consider that for any habit you’ve struggled to pick up — you know it’s good for you, why don’t you just do it?
We know clean electricity, plant-based diets, buying local, driving less are all good for us. Why don’t we just do them?
According to Karen O’Brien, when we struggle to make important changes in our lives and communities, we may be missing adaptive capacity. That could reside in an attachment to worldviews, distraction (e.g. digital addiction), despair and hopelessness, or lack of awareness / understanding of the challenges we’re facing.
How can we build the capacity to adapt in our communities — looking up from our phones, finding hope and inspiration, and exploring new possibilities?
Organizing in our communities.
As O’Brien highlights, this may not only unlock systems-level change in our communities. The organizing processes in themselves — connection, listening, sharing, solving problems together — may also widen perspectives, prompt self-inquiry and reflection, and lead to individual transformation as well (more fulfilling lives, less consumption, more engagement).
What’s more important: starting a plant-based food campaign or reducing meat consumption in my house? According to O'Brien, we want both/and.
And community organizing is a [both/and], [I/we] practice.
Third, say every politician in the world agreed to decarbonize by 2025. What do you imagine would happen next?
We’d see homes being retrofitted and insulated. Renewable energy installations going up. Schools, teachers, and students taking leadership of local climate projects. Neighbors organizing local food production and local economies.
But who would be leading those processes? Would it be government planners and contractors coming into your neighborhood, to do a job and check boxes?
Or would it be led by us — the people that make up our communities, designing the future of the places we live together?
Which would you prefer? And which approach do you think would turn out better, in the long-term?
We have more challenges than climate change. We’re currently in a paradigm where the people who make decisions are far removed from the consequences of them — a world lacking skin in the game. And from neighborhoods getting torn down for “economic development”, to corporations pushing addictive technologies and poisoning our land and oceans, we know this has to change too.
What about a a world where people who are closest to a problem are empowered to solve it? Where people who live in a place determine the future their places hold? Supported by all of the knowhow, experience, perspective, and capacities that our modern world has to offer?
If that’s a world we want, it doesn’t come for free. We can’t have local leadership, while sitting behind a social media feed or binge-watching Netflix over the weekend. If we want to determine our futures, we need to be engaged in the process of creating them. We need to organize.
Once we start, we’ll probably have a lot of fun doing it too.
Beyond climate change, if there’s any difference we want to make in the world — in our homes, our neighborhoods, our cities, our regions, our digital networks — it probably starts with organizing. What's a better way to get things done, than people in a community coming together, making decisions, and taking action themselves? Doesn’t it sound right, just reading it?
That's the future that we're working to realize. Want to make a difference, but don't know where to start? Find a local event happening this week — and just go. Nothing happening around you? Make a plan with a few friends, put it on the calendar, invite others to join you — and just start. Looking for another capability, or have a different problem? More is on the way — let us know anything that would support your work, and feel free to schedule a conversation as well.
And we know there are other important matters as well. In communities which are facing some of the greatest challenges – environmental pollution, economic inequality, systemic violence, injustice, genocide, and oppression — people may have the least time and capacity to engage in local organizing. We’re working to understand everyone's challenges and overcome them — whether it's a lack of childcare support, food and poverty, housing or transportation inequity, or political violence and threats. It’s important for everyone to be part of the process, sharing their perspectives and capacity, and helping lead change together.
Many people may not even have the time or digital access to read something like this. So you can and share it locally too. It’s a small step — but an important one, in understanding who isn’t in the room, why aren’t they here, and how can we make sure everyone can be involved, if there are obstacles in the way?
That’s not lip service. Everybody has a story, a perspective, a set of skills and capacities, to help us get where we’re trying to go. The more people who show up, the more hands we have together, the more likely we are to get where we want to go.
To that end, one of the possibilities I'm most excited about is funding for local organizing. Would you like funding to organize in your community? How much would you like? I'm not sure if there's any better bang for our bucks, in terms of building local wealth and creating positive outcomes, than supporting local organizing and enabling our communities to create outcomes ourselves. So if you're a municipality, philanthropy, creative funder, or any old person who's who wants to see outcomes — let's talk about empowering communities to make it happen. (And if you have any ideas for other ways to support local organizing, let us know!)
... So what now? How will we address climate change, wealth inequality, COVID, violence and injustice, and all the other issues that matter to us? The futures we want to create, the gifts we want to give, the lives we want to experience? The future of the places we call home?
1. If you want to just start, hit the main page and find a local event, or call a few friends and add your own event to the calendar.
2. If you want more people to see this perspective, with people in your community, and start a discussion around these ideas.