On changes

During a job interview, several years ago, I was asked the question ‘what is change?’. Considering the interview was for a three month internship for my first experience in the humanitarian sector, I decided to take the very (liberal? positivist?) path of conflating progress with change, and muddled through a description of the journey from Solferino to modern humanitarianism. Despite my waffling, I got the job. Several years down the line, and a little more cynicism in my back pocket, I still think about that question, both the oddness of it being included in an HR interview format, and the variations on the answers that I could have given.

I’ve been through a fair share of changes since I last posted on this blog. I’m no longer living in Panama, Puerto Rico or Switzerland, but now based in the lovely Bristol, UK. I’ve left the Norwegian Refugee Council, after many wonderful years, and I’m soon to be starting work in a UK based NGO. I’m a mum to a brilliant little toddler. Through the pandemic I’ve moved countries twice, experienced serious illness in my closest family, and re-assessed almost everything important to me. ‘What is change?’ Well, 2020-2021 was a good glimpse into it.

Meanwhile, my climate anxiety has remained constant, as we continue to destroy our living planet through exponential rates of growth, consumption and collective irrationality. Fear for my future, my daughter’s future; anger at previous and current generations, anger at leaders, at fossil fuel executives; overwhelm and despair at my role, my ancestor’s and country’s roles in the systems of power and exploitation that led us here. At times I’ve given into the climate anxiety, and the hopelessness. At others I’ve worked myself into a fury, chasing my own tail in obsessing over individualistic actions and other smokescreens. But lately – and while the process isn’t linear – I’ve moved into the next phase of climate grief: questioning how best to channel my energy into action.

And because of this, I’ve been returning to the question of change, and how to engineer it. Beyond the COPs, the Compacts, the treaty negotiations, the certification schemes (I think I’ve spent enough years within policy environments of voluntary international agreements to both know their value and to crave more ambition!), how can we end white supremacy, colonialism and inequality, dismantle capitalism, and reverse climate breakdown? How do we get the system-wide change needed to be able to actually begin implementing solutions? How do we actually get from the seemingly impossible to the action plan? How do we get people on board, who needs to be on board and how many is enough? What do we need to learn from advocacy and activism victories, seismic economic shifts and societal tipping points throughout history? Are there key common elements behind change, a formula we mustn’t neglect? What is the role of strategic litigation and social movements? Why do some movements fail? Is there such thing as ‘coercive advocacy’ that leads opponents into checkmate? And how can we apply these lessons in the face of climate breakdown? These are the questions I have, constantly.

A while back I saw a post about the different individual profiles we need to collectively tackle the climate crisis (‘are you a story-teller? an organiser? a leader? a careworker’), and it got me thinking about my curiosity and my role in creating systemic change, as a (self-appointed) ‘researcher’. I hope that in the future, I’ll head back to uni and ask these questions in a more formal setting. In the meantime I intend to use this online space to share some of the analysis and reflections I find; an open-source ‘research journal’, of sorts, on the mechanics of change.

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