THE ARMCHAIR ACTIVIST'S HANDBOOK
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‘The individual is not powerless, not subordinate; in fact they are a potent agent of lasting change in the whole system’ Carne Ross, independent diplomat and author.
I’ve always wanted to change the world but I never knew where to start. Not so long ago the world could have been burning and I would have just sat there and moaned about it. I might have clicked on a petition if there happened to be one doing the rounds, but that would have been about the size of it.
Any possible space for proper activism in my life was always full of other stuff.
All this made me a little disappointed in myself. I mean, what use was my guilt if I was just going to carry it around? Ideally, I wanted to be a person who took action and made some sort of difference, instead of one who just adopted a pained expression in the face of trouble.
My reluctance to involve myself in all this had left me in an unhappy state - a helpless spectator, watching all the evil unfold on the TV. The world was burning, and I wasn't doing a thing about it.
This got me asking some important questions. Was it possible that I'd been thinking about activism in the wrong way all this time?
So I began an investigation. Instead of focusing on the problems and what I didn't want to do, I took the rescued runner bean as my inspiration and started looking for other alternative possibilities.
I realised that although everyone was talking about the economy being in a mess, how supermarkets rule our food supply, fast fashion owns the high streets, energy prices are rising and space is a vanishing commodity, that was only half the truth. I saw there was another economy, another food network, another energy system and another, slower, type of fashion. You just didn't hear about them very often.
Maybe I could be an activist in the way I wanted to be one, fighting a battle largely from the comfort of my own home – an armchair activist.
And so I set myself a challenge: to become the ultimate armchair activist, building an arsenal of small but focused tactics that would have a positive effect on the world around me. Maybe it wouldn't be as easy as I thought. Then again, maybe it would. There was only one way to find out – have a go.
Supermarkets are the big business everyone loves to hate, right? It's become sort of fashionable to sound off about it. But you only need to have glanced at the news stories, seen campaigns by groups like War on Want, Tescopoly or Labour Behind the Label, or read a book like Shopped by Joanna Blythman to realise there really are some serious issues with long-term implications behind the bulging, gleaming shelves.
‘Why would you landscape in a world of fewer resources?’ she asked. ‘Why would you want to plant holly if you could plant apples? It doesn't make sense.
‘The system we have is widely unsustainable and incredibly vulnerable to all sorts of things - from just simple fuel price hikes to much more devastating economic or physical events such as climate change. I think most people still - despite all the interest in local food and local growing - really don't get how hard growing and farming food is in this country if you're doing it in a sustainable way.
I should be frank: weaning myself off supermarkets wasn't easy. Occasionally I'd find myself drifting. There were times when I genuinely didn't have any food in the house and was forced to duck into a supermarket on my way home from work.
But these moments of weakness had nothing to do with actually preferring the food - the things I was eating now were often far superior to anything I'd tasted before.
‘I think it's very easy to make out there's a sort of safety when buying from supermarkets, and I just don't accept that. The horsemeat scandal shows that the supermarkets really don't have a clue where things come from.
Taking action on food was important to me, even though I knew my methods didn't sound particularly radical.
For a long time I've found it far too easy to forget that the world's access to many natural resources is controlled by a handful of corporations. On the surface, at least, it wasn’t something that played a really obvious part of my life. As long as my supplies were coming through OK, I figured, why stress? But then I looked a little closer and I got a wake-up call.
I bet I know what you're thinking right now, though. These are big issues, and you're one small person. Which is true - I'll grant you that. You are, and that's how I felt too. But it's also not the whole truth. Because there is stuff we can do.
One of the things that had really struck me was the issue of landgrabs, and how local people were often displaced from land they had lived on and farmed for centuries in the name of development. Evictions were sometimes violent, and the communities rarely had any choice.
I resolved to act. Engaging in a boycott on an issue that was taking place in a geographically remote part of the world was a different type of activism to the path I'd chosen for, say, food. But I needed a way to act locally and a boycott was a tool that would allow me to do that.
We all use high streets and most of us notice the run-down areas around some of them, but the way those areas are managed isn't generally seen as something anyone can change. By and large, we trust in the powers that be to see that they're well looked after. But what happens when those areas aren’t maintained properly?
I knew I only had the capacity for actions that were quite small and what I needed to know was whether I could have an impact that was significant, despite this.
There seemed to be quite a few options for the armchair activist, depending on where your strengths lay and what appealed most to you. In theory, there was nothing to stop me getting involved. I just had to identify my preferred approach.
While it may not be easy to wrestle complete control of spaces back from the private sector or revive all the neglected spaces out there, I was coming to believe that we should assert what little power we do have in whatever spaces we can, and that it's possible to create a more positive public space experience in the process.
There are plenty of bargains on the high street. But not everyone involved in the process is getting such a great deal and these days that's no secret. Plenty of documentaries and books have exposed the grim realities behind much of the clothing worn in the western world, from environmental damage, to sweatshops, to waste. And yet we keep going back for more.
But the more I considered it, the more I realised that buying those clothes made me as guilty as the companies who made them. So I started trying to think outside the box a bit more.
According to a 2012 report from the not-for-profit waste reduction organisation WRAP, the UK alone sends around 350,000 tonnes of used clothing to landfill every year while about 30 per cent of clothes in the average household wardrobe haven't been worn in the past year. It estimates that extending the life of clothing by an extra nine months of active use would reduce carbon, waste and water footprints by around 20-30 per cent each and cut resource costs by 20 per cent (£5 billion).
‘The fact that you can get a sweater for $19.99 at many stores should terrify you,’ he said. ‘Fast, cheap fashion is not affordable when you look at the whole picture. Someone is paying for it, whether it's an exploited factory worker, an animal or a river system. Things are cheap when people aren't paid a living wage, when corners are cut in handling waste or planning production models that consider the reality of the way ecosystems function, and when money is not invested in sustainable technology and innovation.’
Traid is a charity shop with a twist. Like others, it takes unwanted clothes and sells them on, but it also makes use of those clothes that are damaged by upcycling them into something new under its Traid Remade label. In this way it directly reduces waste, while funds from sales goes towards fighting exploitation and environmental degradation across the textile supply chain.
We all know we're buying too much, throwing away too much, and giving too little thought to the processes and people behind it all. Most of us would probably also admit that we could take action on it, if only we could be bothered. We know the facts - yet with shopping now possible from your home computer or on the go and adverts telling us to buy, buy, buy at every turn, there's plenty to tempt us.
One of the resources I'd used before - and probably one of the best-known resources out there - was Freecycle (now known as Freegle in the UK). When I'd first started freelancing I couldn't afford an office chair, but the network had sorted me out. Now, a couple of years later, I started to think about other ways I might use this resource.
‘Because I think it's true to say that the one thing you can change is yourself - your own behaviour and your own consumption. I don't buy anything new and I've been doing that for about 18 months now. We don't need to buy things new, so why do that?’
It wasn't enough to simply cut back on the amount I was consuming. I also needed to change the very nature of the items I was buying. Even though the notion of buying for longevity wasn't a revelation to me, I'd lost count of the number of times I'd bought something on the cheap and it had fallen apart within a matter of weeks.
Concerns about our excessive reliance on cars are nothing new. Climate change, peak oil, the conduct of big businesses involved in the oil trade, the loss of space for play and pedestrians, and the dangers and deaths involved in overcrowded roads have all had a part in making cars a big issue and direct action has taken place on this in various forms for many years…
I knew I wanted to take action on this, and that I needed to start at home. The question was: how extreme did you have to go to make a difference?
But I also believed that if you felt strongly enough about the social and environmental issues tied up with your travel choices, it was an area of action worth embracing. I, for one, was confident I was doing the right thing, however small my contribution might be.
There's a hell of a lot of injustice in the world these days but the most effective tools for tackling it aren’t necessarily the get most obvious. That's one of the things I was learning on my activism journey - it was about thinking outside the normal assumptions.
A lot of the dialogue around traditional marching, chants-and-banners protests seems to centre on an image of protesters as troublemakers and this in turn can discourage people from getting involved.
It provides an avenue for public engagement that seems welcoming and non-hostile to most people. It creates an alternative approach to activism that pushes away the image of activism necessarily being intense, aggressive and hostile.’
‘I was seriously burnt out as an activist and I thought 'maybe it's not for me'. I had this passion, but it was such a chore and really exhausting. I wanted to do something that was positive, that wasn't clicktivism, and wasn't threatening. So it came out as a reaction to activism.’
One of the main strengths of craft as an activist tool, Sarah believes, is its ability to engage the groups of people that marches and protests might not.
‘We can't just keep doing petitions and marches, otherwise we're always just going to have to do that. You're not treating people on a level, you're not being positive, not engaging in conversation - you're shouting at people. In normal life you would never let that happen.’
‘Others feel you need to support your local area first so it has some resilience to it, whether that's because of climate change, a lack of moral values in the way we live, or global meltdown. Do what you can as a community, and then that forms the base for how you engage with the rest of the world.’
You might have places with the same amount of money coming in, but in one of them it gets spent in the supermarket and then it leaves the area straight away. In another place, the income gets passed on from local business to local business, over and over again. This is the same money, but every time it changes hands it creates local wealth.’
‘If local currencies in the UK could crack the secret of appealing to the general public (rather than the usual suspects) and sign up a wide range of basic goods and services, then there's a chance a local currency could really take off,’ Gill told me. ‘We're not there just yet, but there is a great potential for addressing poverty, social exclusion and unemployment through these initiatives.’
‘There's an undoubted appeal to the idea of taking the economy - and money - into our own hands, when national currency doesn't seem to be working,’ said Gill. ‘It's empowering and creative... it can bring together people with needs to be met, with those who have skills to offer, and enable exchanges, to everyone's benefit. A local quantitative easing.’
I'll admit that educating myself about the inner workings of the economy sounded about as tempting as poking myself in the eye. It wasn't something I wanted to spend my evenings doing, especially after a long day at work, but it turned out that key facts at the heart of the Positive Money campaign were well worth getting a handle on.
Crucially, my activist experiment and transformation had made see something that I hadn't understood before: that for activism to work at its best, everybody needs to play to their strengths. Taking to the streets with chants and banners isn't going to be for each and every person, but that doesn't mean that we should give up, or that our efforts can't make a difference. There isn't one ‘right’ way.
I'm not proposing that the issues in this book are the most important ones, or that everybody should take action in the same ways I have. My experiences simply offer ideas and inspiration for bringing change, outside of traditional protest on the streets.
Because really, to be successful at any kind of activism, the first thing you need to know is what's possible. And now you do. *