Windows of opportunity & good actions in a time of crisis
Today is Earth Day.
Around the world, people are uniting for the sake of a healthy planet: millions of individuals applying their combined weight to keep social and environmental progress mobilised and moving forwards.
In 1970, the first Earth Day was a co-ordinated display of activism in response to the alarm bells which had been ringing, louder and louder, about dangerous levels of pollution. The event proved to be pivotal in establishing the US Environmental Protection Agency and passing the Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts. Earth Day has continued every year since: providing important leverage to pressing issues and directing pathways away from the danger zones. As large-scale efforts like these become an increasingly normal part of our global society, we are reminded that a healthy planet is not an end goal that can be signed off once the job is done. Fair and sustainable well-being is an ongoing journey – a flourishing way of life.
With the sirens of our time calling, the focus for Earth Day 2020 is on ‘climate action[i]’.
Pandemonium! Form an orderly queue...
The Coronavirus pandemic has prompted worldwide action on a scale that many would have argued as being impossible. In the UK, in a matter of weeks, what began as advice on how to sneeze has become strict orders not to visit loved ones. A clear message amongst any confusion is that non-compliance endangers lives. Things which we took for granted a month ago are now cherished or longed for and we wonder if or when they might return.
Supporting us through the hardship, our gratitude for the joys and blessings in our lives is at an all time high. The structural changes to the old world are already letting sunlight into new spaces as we find ourselves motivated and empowered to act in caring and inspiring ways. The boundary lines defining which actions are possible can change quickly, especially during a pandemic. Whether they are tight, loose or dynamic (e.g. a boundary I face might be removed or slackened when we work together) the goal is always for improvement – to get through as safely and as best as is possible. This pandemic has already made it clear that our best efforts are collective[ii]. Kindness is not the direct outcome of simply not being mean, and how people and communities around the world are enacting stay-at-home orders far exceeds simply not going out.
Covid-19 has challenged and changed our day-to-day comforts and habits. As humans, we have evolved certain instincts and biases[iii] which, understandably, prefer stability over change; security over threat. Our instincts want to preserve our current environments because these are the systems which have supported our lives thus far. It turns out that overruling deep-seated survival instincts can be a bit of an effort. No surprise then that we tend to resist making big changes until they are absolutely essential.
If we understand the Earth to be our home, then deciding to change social norms to improve the planet might be compared to putting down a good book to go and wash the dishes instead. And like washing the dishes, we can expect the job to become harder the longer we put it off. As much as we try and avoid these looming tasks, our hearts and minds still dream of things like clean cutlery and literacy for all. If any of this is giving you an appetite for housework, then activism calls! At crisis point, we will even wash the windows.
Who is your favourite activist?
Without getting too fussy about definitions or overly prescriptive with rules, let us think of activism as any positive actions towards the care and sustainable flourishing of this wonderful Earth-House. Hopefully this is relaxed enough to cover the many acts by the many activists, from asking a compassionate question and taking the time to hear the answer (Grandma is such a great activist!), to forming a human blockade to halt destructive fracking operations (Grandma is such a great activist!).
If activism is simply ‘good action’, how might that look? What activism did you do today? (Thank you!); how have you benefitted because of a fellow activist? (Thank them!); and how can we help others in their activism?
Having the abilities and supportive opportunities are certainly two important keys to activism. Under the locked-down terms of a UK in crisis response, as already noted, opportunities can feel extremely limited. And they are. Mass public demonstrations and million-strong marches for change are certainly not possible any time soon, nor will we be seeing many iconic physical protests.
These are perhaps the more familiar depictions of activism and they often use deliberate disobedience to deliver the message. Whichever way those messages are framed or delivered, “A better future for all” is more often than not a common heartbeat. Covid-19 doesn’t change the message, it just changes the action.
Socially acceptable activism
In society, what is considered acceptable depends on a messy mix of factors such as the political climate, the historical events that have shaped views and cultures, the land/place itself, and even the weather. These conditions all factor into what behaviour we consider to be ‘normal’. As you would expect, the boundaries of normalcy will also morph and differ from place to place and from time to time. Up until 1834 it was legally acceptable to own a slave in the UK; 50 years ago, imagining the internet as an essential part of society was not just laughable, it was probably quite scary; and if 3 months ago I told my partner that every Thursday at 8pm I will be standing on the doorstep banging a saucepan to thank the NHS, she would probably have suggested that I send the lovely staff of the NHS an email instead.
These social conditions determine which new and different behaviours fall inside or outside the [often unspoken] terms of acceptability. Some political theories call this the ‘Overton Window[iv]’ which is based around the idea that the smooth passage of a novel idea into the mainstream can very much depend on whether this window of opportunity is open. The Coronavirus has thrown this window wide open – the “Normal Behaviour” textbook has been ripped up, and the pages have been redesigned to display rainbows in the windows.
Unfortunately, this point-of-entry into our shared home can be exploited: bad smells and worse pollutants can sneak in. The Environmental Protection Agency (which Earth Day activists let in through the window) has recently lifted environmental laws which protect against over-polluting. The amended, and now ‘legally acceptable’ version, states that penalties will not be incurred for violations wherever “...COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance...[v]”. There is currently no end date on this ‘temporary policy’.
The list of fast-moving changes to policy and practice continues in many forms. Today’s normal includes drones being used to disinfect streets, or to disperse crowds and broadcast police messages; governments moving quickly to develop and roll-out ‘[Covid-19] contact tracing’ phone apps to monitor the spread of the virus, also raising data privacy concerns; and emergency measures being used to put authoritarian controls[vi] in place.
Actively co-creating ‘normal’
What are we going to do with this crisis? Here I would like to share some of the ideas that I’ve been exposed to recently, but by far the best idea right now is to keep creating, sharing, encouraging, enacting and supporting more ideas!
This pandemic is redefining and allowing us to redefine our boundaries at both individual and community levels. It has pushed our old comfort zones past their limits. Our standard way of living has undergone thorough destructive testing[vii]. In many cases, our old standards failed to pass basic requirements and the new prototypes look much more resilient, and wonderfully bonkers in comparison.
So how about becoming even more of a “caremonger[viii]" than you already are? – spreading peace not panic, inciting help-trends rather than hatred, generating friends not fears. Join those people or groups who do the things which speak to your heart and resound with your own style of activism. Reach out to others, be the light that shines into their new landscape.
Existing organisations are providing lots of online advice and support. The Earth Day website gives their list of ’11 actions for the planet during a pandemic[ix]’ which spans from safely swapping seeds with your neighbours to ‘Earthing up’ your political engagement. Earth Day 2020 is also the place to be if you’d like to volunteer as a ‘citizen scientist[x]’. The Extinction Rebellion team have assembled a handbook[xi] covering a broad range of needs, advising on self care and offering suggestions of positive, Covid-related activities (there is a ‘live version’ of the handbook which gets new and updated information). Greenpeace offer a sustainably-minded list of little actions to ‘green your home[xii]’ during lock-down. If you don’t fancy making origami plant pots then how about heading over to The New Economics Foundation to read their ‘Five ways to wellbeing at a time of social distancing[xiii]’? (In brief: 1. Connect, 2. Be Active, 3. Be Curious, 4. Keep Learning, 5. Give.) While you’re over there you might realise that you’re an aspiring economic activist and want to learn more about co-creating an alternative economic model: a model fit for a flourishing future, where a nation’s wealth is much more than its GDP[xiv].
Typing “online climate strike” into a search engine should bear plenty of fruit, especially if you use the tree-planting search engine, Ecosia[xv]. 350.org have put together this list[xvi] of online resources to help with climate action efforts, with links out to webinars, further reading and guidance on organising groups and events – maybe this will plant the seed and you’ll start creating a great activist project! Upskilling and focussed learning can provide the additional tools for achieving your goals – online platforms like FutureLearn[xvii] cover lots of subjects and offer many free courses (if you have noticed yourself really rising to the Coronavirus challenges you might want to look at the Covid-specific courses and content there). And extending our care to the future generations, the United Nations has advice for parents[xviii] which is especially useful for helping with your child’s learning and well-being. The list goes on, and not forgetting that supporting others[xix] to enable their good actions plays a key part in making the journey sustainable.
But wait!! You may well be wondering about the greenhouse gas emissions of all this increased internet usage. If I told you that video streaming amounts to over 300 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions per year[xx], would you be more selective about what you watch? These global disruptions provide prime conditions for reviewing what we do, why and when. Sustainability is not about sacrifice and strife, it is about living in the full, colourful spectrum of life affirming actions. The environmental impact of something like the internet is not a call for a future without laptops and smartphones, it calls for a future where our online actions are in balance with our offline world.
Activism – it’s where the heart is
If we continue the good actions which make healthy on- and offline spaces, these spaces become more supportive of more good actions – and around and around it goes, with collective leverage steering away from the danger zones along the way. We have navigated ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolating’ in a way that has increased our connections, strengthened our networks and recreated our sense of community. We have already been using our time in lock-down to free up our passions and liberate our other human instincts for justice, compassion and altruism.
What stands out in how we are responding to the current crisis is that creativity and kindness light the way. Leaving behind our ‘normal’ is allowing us to set out on new adventures. Because of the hardships, we are travelling light and only bringing the most essential values and qualities. Each new day, as this Earth keeps turning, disruptions will come and go and our normal will keep shifting. If we remember that each individual, united, defines the boundaries of society, then we can more actively move things in a positive direction. Wherever we are and whatever emerges from this pandemic, take pride in all the good acts that you do, because transforming a house into a Home takes real activism.
“...a healthy planet is not an end goal or a target that can be signed off once the job is done. Fair and sustainable well-being is an ongoing process – a flourishing way of life.”
“The structural changes to the old world are already letting sunlight into new spaces.”
“We have navigated ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolating’ in a way that has increased our connections, strengthened our networks and recreated our sense of community.”
“ – the ‘Normal Behaviour’ textbook has been ripped up, and the pages have been redesigned to display rainbows in the windows”