How do I advise young climate activists without stifling their autonomy?

Q: Having been around since the early days of Climate Camp, I consider myself a veteran of climate activism. Witnessing the more recent rise of groups like the climate strikers and Extinction Rebellion has been a joy – but one tempered by worry.

Firstly there’s what’s become a common dynamic of movements in the social media age: they burn like a rocket, dazzling for a time but then fizzle out, often leaving little movement infrastructure behind. But there’s also the impact on those involved, particularly where groups make people feel they have a responsibility to put themselves in harm’s way, leaving participants arrested, burnt out, or worse.

I feel I have a responsibility to warn younger activists of these risks. But how do I do so without replicating far-too-common Left sectarianism – our way is the only way! – or trampling on others’ autonomy?

If I may, your letter takes me back to my own time as an inexperienced but politically committed student. It was just after a stomping general election victory for the Conservatives. Students and locals had met to determine next steps. The room was brimming with passion, but it was only booked for two hours. An hour and a half in, we were barely through the sensible but extensive house rules, when an older Trotskyist type stood up and asked when we were going to stop navel-gazing and start taking action.

We all rolled our eyes. Here was a typical man of the Old Left, too ignorant to understand that equality had to be secured in the meeting room before we had any hope out in the world, we thought. Looking back, our scruffy militant probably had a point. Nothing came out of that meeting but catharsis, and profile-building for bigger-name activists. I think we needed to hear his concerns. How might you impart some of your own pearls now?

First, remember this can feel very personal. If you worry about the direction your group is taking due to perceived inexperience, some may take that as an attack on their competence and wisdom. Could you try starting a strategy discussion group? That way, you can have the conversations you need by pointing to concrete historical examples, without it feeling so much like pointing the finger.

It needn’t be a dry break-off group, but could use interesting readings to prompt discussion. Sarah Schulman’s history of the AIDS movement in the United States, Let the Record Show, documents how people with few resources organized around an unpopular cause to secure real lasting change. Vincent Bevins’s new history of 2010s social movements, If We Burn, isn’t afraid to critically engage with the failings of many key groups of the time. Why not pick out some key sections to explore?

Second, be ready to learn too. Younger and more inexperienced activists may not be as familiar with all the pitfalls of progressive organizing, but they bring valuable experiences to the table in their own right. They are more likely to be dealing with precarious employers or dodgy landlords. You’d be well-advised to heed them on which messages may run well on social media, and which attract only ire. This is a two-way street, and if you want to teach others, you need to be receptive yourself.

Finally, you are right to contemplate the risks to young people. All activism involves some element of graft and self-sacrifice, but this should be shared fairly across the movement. The days are long gone where a young person could throw themselves into the cause head-first while they rented cheaply, subsisting on odd jobs and state help.

Contemporary movements must catch up and make sure that the grunt work doesn’t fall to newbies as a matter of course (not to mention any arrestable civil resistance). Speak up and make sure that the struggle is shared. Perhaps having done so, you’ll get a fairer hearing than that ignored prophet of my university days. It sounds like you deserve one.

Send your dilemmas to [email protected]