Ten lessons to face the climate crisis

Breaking or Shaking the System

Four great thinkers and activists came together at the Forum on European Culture to discuss the burning question of our time: can we save the planet without breaking the system? We – two climate activists ourselves – took their lessons around changing the system.

Have you ever wondered what’s next? You just joined a climate protest and felt solidarity, shared emotions and the hope that things will become better. Basking in the afterglow, you ask yourself: But, how? How exactly can we go about changing the system and make the change that’s needed?

You are not alone. We – Lena and Anja are both climate activists and have been investigating how to change the system for years. Lena is currently working on a self-help book for societal action, and Anja is a civil servant working for the city of Amsterdam. Hoping to learn something new, we joined the debate of four great thinkers and activists: Ece Temelkuran, Eva Rovers, Clare Farrell and Loes Damhof, at the Forum on European Culture to discuss the burning question of our time: can we save the planet without breaking the system?

For anyone who considers themselves a climate activist (or soon to be), we noted their lessons around changing the system.

Shaking the system

Lesson 1: Our government and systems protect Big Capital – know who you are fighting

In recent crises, we have seen that our governments are able to respond quickly if there is urgency. So, you would imagine that – given the facts and figures – the climate crises would make governments act immediately? Wrong. Ece Temelkuran, Turkish journalist and renowned author of How to Lose a Country, explains that our governments and systems are designed to protect the status quo and furthermore: Big Capital. “We have to stay on the ground and challenge our politicians continuously”.

Lesson 2: Never underestimate your power inside the system

When is it worth staying within a system (the government for example) and when is it time to leave to fight it from the outside? Anja is the co-organizer of a petition (a letter) that 1200 civil servants of Amsterdam signed. In this collective action, the civil servants criticized their directors for the lack of urgency and implementation of pro-climate policies. Anja: “The petition helped us to gain space to work on pro-climate breakthrough ideas. But when do you say, enough, I quit my job?” Ece: “Use all your influence before you leave, only leave it if you’re certain you will be more influential outside.” Clare Farrell – one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion UK – adds that climate activists should not forget that it is real politics and not just activism that is needed to make the change.

Lesson 3: Lobby works if you have the streets

For every action by the climate movement, thousands of lobbyists are at work to create weaker climate policies. Should the climate movement also start lobbying politicians more directly? Or is lobbying ‘dirty’ and undemocratic? Ece: “It’s all about how strong the street is. We don’t have money unfortunately, what we can have is the streets”. When lobbying, be street smart: use mass protests and civil disobedience like Extinction Rebellion to build pressure towards governments and companies.Ece: “The most important thing is to shame them into doing something. There should be so many people that they cannot hide”.

Politics is a sphere where you do harm, and we’re choosing which side we’re going to harm. If we’re going to harm capital, it’s not a clean game.

Ece Temelkuran
Lesson 4: Democracy grows by involving all of us

As the climate debate seems to be more and more polarized and trust in governments declines, the need to involve a wide range of citizens in climate solutions becomes more urgent. Writer and co-founder of Bureau Burgerberaad, Eva Rovers, has been working on Citizen Assemblies and wrote the Dutch book Nu is Het Aan Ons. Eva: “Citizen assemblies work by selecting a random group of citizens and asking their input on an important societal question. The question needs to be big enough for new answers and concrete enough to be solved by a group of citizens.” With citizen assemblies, the climate movement could counter polarization by involving more people in the debate on the world’s biggest problem.

Students take part in a march for the environment and the climate o, in Brussels, on February 21, 2019. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who has inspired pupils worldwide to boycott classes, urged the European Union on February 21, 2019 to double its ambition for greenhouse gas cuts. EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP
Lesson 5: You need people on the inside

To get your initiative within the climate movement and/or democratic space started, you require real-life experiments. Eva: “For the Citizen Assemblies, it turned out that it’s often one or two people within a municipality or local government that are really excited about the idea. They are your internal activists lobbying to create space for a first assembly”. One thing is crucial for it to be effective: make sure there is a political mandate for the results of the assembly.

Breaking the System

Lesson 6: Look for cracks in the narrative

To challenge the way change is going right now, we need to imagine a new future withouth boundaries. Loes Damhof, an expert in Futures Literacy, suggested we need to pay more detail to the stories we tell about our future. The strength of the current dominant story is that the people in power make it look like this is the only way to progress… This makes us forget that there are many possible futures. If someone tells a story about how it will unfold, look for little cracks. The inconsistencies, the parts that are unclear, that could be different. What are the cracks in the dominant story about the climate crisis? When you talk to someone with a different vision, figure out the deeper values and beliefs of their vision.

Lesson 7: You can’t stay clean if you want to play the game

Do outcomes justify the means in the battle against business as usual? Could we use the strategies of our opponents? Ece says that it depends on what you want to accomplish: “Do you want to keep yourself clean or do you want to play the game? Know that life is not a clean thing.” As activists, we sometimes struggle with the desire to be as ‘pure’ as possible in our tactics. Ece recognizes this: “What I find interesting in young generations is the scrutiny in clean and dirty. And a hardcore dedication not to harm anything. Politics is a sphere where you do harm, and we’re choosing which side we’re going to harm. If we’re going to harm capital, it’s not a clean game.”

AMSTERDAM – Hans van den Berg, CEO Tata Steel interrupted by protestors during our programme The future of Tata Steel.
Lesson 8: Find the red line of the system, then push it

The motorway is a symbol of freedom, a way to go wherever you’d like. You and your car, alone and the endless road ahead of you. Can you feel it? A deep emotional connection. That’s the reason people were outraged when Extinction Rebellion blocked the road. Clare explained that after trying different modes of action, the thing that worked, that people really cared for, was the motorway. “Find the red line, and then push it! (…) If someone isn’t losing their shit, it is not democracy”.

Lesson 9: Don’t quit, let them fire you!

Can you be a climate activist and a civil servant at the same time? The rules and moral sphere for civil servants are complex: civil servants have to be loyal to their democratically chosen leaders and act morally just. Some institutions abuse their power and pressure employees to leave when they join climate activism. Should civil servants just quit? Ece recommends being fired rather than quitting yourself, so we can find out the limits. And once you go: share it! “Under pressure, we feel lonely. You need to open up, and you ask for help – for moral and political reasons, you owe it to others to open up and show it.”

Lesson 10: Answer this: “what would I do if I were the boss?”

After breaking and shaking the system comes… leading it? Clare: “Activists often criticize, but forget to ask themselves what they would do if they controlled the state”. If you want things to be different, then it’s crucial to know how. Let’s ask ourselves: “what would we do if we had the power?” We can shake and break the system until it crumbles – but we do need something new to replace it.

This article is written by Lena Hartog and Anja Reimann, we are both participants in the Balie Studio Europa 2023. The Event ‘The Dilemma of Climate Democracy’ was organized on the 3rd of June by De Balie in cooperation with DutchCulture as part of the Forum on European Culture (2023).
Lesson 5: How to create a citizen assembly

We’ve created a list of requirements for an effective citizen assembly, to help people to organize them in a way that actually makes a difference.

Eva Rovers
  1. Ask a good question
  2. Give a clear assignment
  3. Work with a weighted draw
  4. Remove thresholds for participation
  5. Ensure balanced information and be transparent
  6. Aim for equal deliberation
  7. Involve the rest of society
  8. Trust citizens
  9. Take the time
  10. Do it more often

(Translated From the Bureau Burger Beraad website).

STUDIO Europa is funded by the Dutch representation of Europe in The Hague.]

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