Can Cambridge’s environmental activists have an impact that is greater than the sum of their parts?
I’m going to start off with one of my favourite tracks of late by the wonderful and stupendously talented Grace Sarah, who is local to me and is in year 11. My past few blogposts have been typed up with this in the background. Have a listen.
Greenpeace Cambridge and Transition Cambridge double-book a cafe
Puffles and I rocked up to CB1 Cafe in Cambridge, where a number of different activist groups have gatherings. (CB2 Cafe/Restaurant is another activist haunt). We got there to find a number of familiar faces from Transition Cambridge setting up for one of their regular film nights. (They have a really useful & regularly updated calendar of events here). It was only when activists from the newly reformed Cambridge Greenpeace society turned up that it occurred two sets of environmentalist activists had double-booked the place. Actually it was quite fortunate that they did.
I spent the evening downstairs with the 15 or so activists from the city’s Greenpeace group and the newly formed Anglia Ruskin Greenpeace Society to see why another environmentalist group had set up shop in Cambridge – given that there seem to be so many others around. At the same time, I had been wondering why, out of all the environmental groups in Cambridge, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth had been conspicuous by their absence. The former no longer.
“Hang on – just how many environmentalist/sustainability/green groups are there in Cambridge?”
Let’s have a look.
- Cambridge Green Party and Cambridge Green Party Students
- Cambridge Greenpeace and Anglia Ruskin Greenpeace
- Cambridge Vegans and Anglia Ruskin Vegans
- Transition Cambridge
- Cambridge Carbon Footprint
- Cambridge Zero Carbon Society
- Energise Cambridge
- Cambridge University Environmental Consulting Society
- Cambridge University Student Union Ethical Affairs
- Cambridge Cycling Campaign
- Cambridge Past Present and Future
- FoodCycle Cambridge
…to name but a few. (I’ve web-linked to each one above).
Why don’t they all merge into one big green group?
The simple reason is society – and societies don’t work that way – especially in environmental circles. My take is that the culture within such circles is generally an autonomous one rather than a rigid top-down centralised one. This is where historical tensions between Greenpeace as an institution & the wider environmentalist movement have existed for a long time. In the grand scheme of things, people like to have some sort of control over what they do rather than simply taking orders from a centralised headquarters. Perhaps that’s one of the things that has put people off party politics – they don’t feel they get to influence policy but are expected to take orders from on high. You only have to look at the identical co-ordinated tweets from political parties to see an expression of this. Such posting is easily lampooned.
One of the things my Teacambs co-host Liz Stephenson continually reminds me of is the collegiate nature of community groups and societies in Cambridge. As a city we simply don’t do ‘top down’ societies in a big way. Such micromanagement is off-putting. That’s not to say central co-ordination doesn’t have a role or its strengths. In other places, such structures may be more suitable. Just not here.
Collaboration, co-ordination and co-operation without the strict control
That’s the challenge for all of the groups I’ve listed earlier: How can people who are active within one or several of these groups work together in a manner where their impact is greater than the sum of their parts? Sustainability is clearly on the minds of Cambridge University students. Anglia Ruskin Greenpeace students have been conspicuous by their activity despite being very recently formed. (They appear to have the essential critical mass of organisers, as well as being linked into student union structures too). On top of that you then have an active Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Transition Cambridge movements in non-university circles in residential communities.
One of the challenges for local Greenpeace activists is managing the strong desire for top-down control from head office, vs the culture within the communities they operate in. As I mentioned to the group this evening, one of the things that might put some people off is being told that they cannot do something because ‘HQ says no’. It’s not just out and about activities, but, for example the content that people post on social and digital media. Part of the challenge – which applies to Cambridge Carbon Footprint too, is their activists have to act within the remit of the Charities Act 2006. Amongst other things, activists cannot be politically partisan. Campaign on issues, yes. Campaign for a political party, no.
Where does a dragon fairy from an autonomous collective fit into all of this?
Some of you may be aware that I spent some time as policy adviser on climate change during my time in the civil service in Whitehall. My main focus was on sustainable new homes. It was an incredibly intense period of my life, one where I felt I aged about 10 years in less than one. But I learnt so much about how the system functions – and malfunctions. I also got a front-row seat working on primary legislation from introduction into Parliament all the way through to royal assent. That’s an insight that few people have the privilege of.
Where me and Puffles fit in is making the connections between the various groups – listening, asking questions and making suggestions as to who might be able to help solve specific problems. It might be for example that one group has an idea that they want to run with, but don’t have funds available to pay for small items. Another group may have funds available but few suggestions on how to make best use of it. One group may struggle to get hold of affordable venues while another group – normally through student societies, can access meeting and event space for free. It’s that sort of co-operation that I’m trying to facilitate.
Making the case for social and digital media
Cambridge is a very long way behind other places in terms of using social media for social action. People such as myself simply have not been able to make the case en masse to a large audience – as I explain here. As far as the environmental groups in Cambridge are concerned, this means that they are missing out on a number of what I call ‘quick wins’. Simple things such as setting up events on Facebook and publicising them through the various groups on there. This was clear to me at the event on food markets this week. (See my blogpost here). A web of active social media links supporting and bringing together the various environmental groups would have easily doubled the turnout from 40 to 80. Again, that’s not the fault of an individual, but a structural issue throughout the city.
It’s also one of the reasons why I commissioned a number of my early Twitter followers to help make some free digital video guides on the main social media tools.
It’s also why I volunteer to help Cambridge Online and the Net-Squared Group deliver free social media training for activists and community groups in and around Cambridge
Why the focus on sustainability issues? Why not something else?
Good question. Apart from my long-term general interest in the area, it’s one of the areas where there is visible potential to make a significant impact. It’s also an issue that cuts across all boundaries, as one way or another we all have to share this planet. Furthermore, I personally don’t feel the need or desire to order people on what things to campaign on within the field, or how to do it. It’s not my style. I see my role as that of a facilitator, bringing people together, introducing them and their groups to each other, and letting them decide for themselves what they want to do or which direction they want to go in.
The other thing is that I want my home town (Cambridge) to be a more exciting and vibrant place than it currently is. Part of that is an age thing – being in my early 30s I’m in this cohort of people that perhaps wants to do something different than what we did socially in our teens and early 20s. I’m not the only one – there are a number of groups in Cambridge that feel similar and have organised accordingly. whether it’s the 20s hotspot or the Thirsty thirties organising virtually, the professional networks of JCI Cambridge, Cam Creatives and Cambridge Young Professionals, to even the dance societies of Cambridge Dancers’ Club, Cambridge Lindy, Cambridge Salsa and Cambridge Tango, people want to do things collectively. This was one of the strong messages that came out of the first Cambridge Sunday Assembly (sort of ‘church without god’ – I blogged about it here).
Community development strategies again?
For those of you new to this blog – especially if you live/work in or around Cambridge, my big idea is to get Cambridge and the surrounding area functioning greater than the sum of its parts (see here). A city where our events are more diverse & more exciting, where our community groups are active, vibrant and sustainable, and one where it’s generally a nice place to live, work and play. It sounds cliched – well, it is, but I’m yet to see somewhere where such cliches are turned into a reality. Personally I think we’ve got the potential to do that.
A Community Action Summit in early 2014
This is my big starting point – I blogged about it here. But for the environmental groups in Cambridge, we have Cambridge University’s Green Week coming up around the same time. Therefore:
Can Cambridge’s student and community environmental societies come together and create a programme for that week where the impact of Green Week is felt not just within the colleges, but right across the city? Can we have the ‘activist teach ins’ where students, residents and citizens can learn about campaigning? Can we have workshops that teach us and/or reenforce some of the issues about why we are doing this? Can we have seminars that update us on the latest research on our impact on the environment? Can we have practical sessions on what we can do, or what possible solutions we might have? Can we also have some fun events too?
Many of the groups and societies I listed at the top have already demonstrated they can do this. Transition Cambridge is having a Skills Fest on 9 November. ARU’s Greenpeace society has a club night on 12 November. The Liberated Feast, made from food that farmers and supermarkets do not want, is on 15 November. (Puffles and I went to the last one – see here for a review).
There are local council and European elections coming up – 22 May 2014
This is not a plug for one particular party or another. Most of Cambridge’s political parties are reasonably strong on environmental issues anyway. (Find out who your elected representatives are through Write to them. But with the elections coming up next year, what impact could an active vibrant connected network of people make on both the debates that happen in the run up to the elections as well as the outcomes? Can we have a more energised, informed debate that encourages more people to become active and take part? Will we see more public debates that build on the excellent work from the Cambridge Cycle Campaign?
Food for thought.