The real change will happen not in numbers, but in our imaginations
In the past few years, there has been a groundswell of young people expressing their anger, fear, grief about the climate crisis — and their demands on how to tackle it. For me, seeing their actions has been both harrowing (that they should even be needing to do it) and admirable. I don’t think I found my own political voice until I was at least 30.
As the UK prepares to host the latest UN climate conference, COP26, many of these young activists will be ramping up their efforts and expecting — as many of us are — to see, finally, some concrete actions from our political leaders. Activists must celebrate the wins, and also brace themselves for the disappointments that this particular conference entails.
But disappointment on the world stage does not mean that change isn’t coming. Indeed, as the writer Rebecca Solnit reminds us in her beautiful book Hope in the Dark, the fate of the world is not only decided on the spotlit stages of international conferences. Far from it.
Perhaps youth activists, too young to have lived through many climate summits, can be bolstered by Solnit’s central theory, which is that change comes in convoluted ways. There is rarely a linear cause and effect. More often, victories come as subtle, complex, slow (and sometimes sudden) changes instead.
Following Solnit’s thesis, the most important work that activists are engaged in is not lobbying international climate conferences (although this is also vital), it is in the spread of ideas and shaping of imaginations. As she puts it: “The revolution that counts is the one that takes place in the imagination; many kinds of change issue forth thereafter.”
Imaginations have already revolted
Regardless of the outcomes of COP26, the youth movement has shown that their imaginations have already revolted, and that this spirit of revolution can be infectious. The phenomenal wave of action and awareness that was set in motion by Greta Thunberg’s first lonesome “School Strike for Climate” in 2018 is only the most visible part. Elsewhere, youth activism has been going on for years without media attention.
That young people’s demands to tell the truth and to take the climate crisis as seriously as it deserves appear not yet to have been met by political leaders, does not mean that the world has not been changed, or that it won’t.
In her famous essay “Leverage points: places to intervene in a system,” the environmental scientist Donella H Meadows proposes that the most powerful place to intervene (that is, to cause change) is in the mindset of the culture from which the system arises. Interestingly, she suggests that the least effective place to intervene is tinkering with numbers, standards, quotas, and so on. While the spotlight shines brightly on COP26, it will be tempting to pin all our hopes on the numbers that get tinkered with. But doing so would be to overlook the significant shifts in ideas, mindsets, and values that climate activists have already managed to bring about.
This is not about giving up on targeted actions and simply hoping we can imagine a different world into being. It is about a deeper analysis of what ultimately sustains both activism and social change. As Solnit says: “Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary.”
These changes are hard to track or count, and indeed, many assumptions about how change happens — particularly when it comes to tackling climate change — are tethered to examples of mitigation that can be easily measured. In such a linear world, it is hard to imagine how the kinds of rapid, large-scale changes that are needed will ever happen. But what if this theory of change is wrong?
You matter more than you think
This is the argument put forward by Professor Karen O’Brien and others, who suggest that the conscious, intentional actions of individuals have much more power to shift entrenched systems than is commonly assumed. In other words, and to quote the title of O’Brien’s book on the subject, “you matter more than you think.”
Although there is a danger here of playing in to the hands of those who would love to offload their responsibility for the climate crisis onto the lifestyle choices of individuals, it is also empowering to recognize that our individual actions exert much greater power on the larger system than just what can be counted or measured.
Even the most ordinary of our daily routines can be symbolic acts that send ripples through the imaginations of others. These ripples inspire other people to act, generating more ripples. By the end, the lines of influence are virtually impossible to trace or predict.
This theory of change understands individual change and system change as two sides of the same coin. It is complicated and messy and confusing, but that does not mean it is not working.
So, as we ride the inevitable highs and lows of COP26, it will be important to remember that real work is also happening off stage, in the shadowy places of our collective imaginations. Like a pebble being skimmed across a lake, it is not always possible to envisage the outcomes of activism, or when and how they will come, but this is part of the joy and the thrill: The hope in the dark.