Don’t do for others what they should do for themselves
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the stellar rise of Greta Thunberg and how, as a symbol of hope, she is inspiring millions of young people worldwide to take action around issues linked to climate change. I agree with those millions of young people and I, too, feel inspired.
However, I am also a pragmatist, hungry for power and change, and I believe that it is actions that lead to hope, rather than hope to action.
The Iron Rule of Community Organising, as defined by Saul Alinsky in his seminal Rules for Radicals, is that one should never do for others what they can do for themselves. Campaigning on behalf of someone else is an insult to their sense of agency. We are all born with the ability to act, and it is crucial that that right remains intact. Expecting others to sort things out for us is the antithesis of what politics should be about.
Sadly, politics is now seen as out of our reach: it is the stuff of Westminster. It’s up to MPs to agree what our lives should be about.
Whilst it is great to see Gretha Thunberg using her political self very wisely and strategically – ably utilising her sense of agency – we should teach our students that they too can act. They too can be wise and strategic. They too can bring about change.
In terms of climate change, what we seem to be presented with, is a huge problem: reducing carbon emissions in order to keep the earth’s temperature in check. The hopeful target climate change activists connected to Extinction Rebellion have in mind is that ‘[t]he Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.’
And this is where people switch off and hand power over to politicians. The demands are on others, not on us as such.
A powerful tactic to teach our students is to start on our doorstep. There is nothing more powerful than leading by example so, rather that demanding things of others – in this instance an almost unreachable ‘government’ – let’s look at what goes on on our patch: our schools, our homes, our own community.
Focusing on us achieves two things:
- it teaches us to take responsibility;
- it teaches us to turn big problems into smaller, ‘winnable’, issues.
When you’re in charge, it’s easier to win. And winning is what gives us hope. It’s what develops our credibility. And it’s what makes us stand out when others don’t do what’s needed.
As a school, we are taking climate change seriously and we are about to declare our own ‘state of climate emergency’. And rather than spend months defining what targets should be/look like, we’ll get on with it and tackle climate change-related issues head on.
Our Climate Charter will include:
- we’ll teach our children to be responsible for themselves. We’ll teach them that climate change is their responsibility.
- no single-use plastics to be used in our school: no plastic bottles, no plastic straws, no plastic bags, no plastic cling film in our kitchens, etc.
- all light bulbs to be energy efficient
- all lights in corridors to be on sensors so they’re off when not actually needed
- all heaters, when on, to not go over 19°C
- all cisterns in our toilets to be filled with eco-blocks, thus reducing the amount of water used when flushing
- all taps in our toilets to be on cold. Hot water isn’t needed to wash one’s hands.
- all paper used to be recycled paper
- all food waste to be composted
- all classroom lights to be off when not needed
- all communication with families to be done electronically
- all ‘deleted items’ mailboxes to be emptied weekly (thus reducing power consumptions from our server)
- all computers/interactive screens to have auto-switch off systems enabled so that no devices remain switched on past certain times
- areas that don’t need to be hoovered daily to not be hoovered daily
And the list will probably go on, based on ideas generated by our school community.
The key thing about our charter is that it focuses on us. It makes us the agents of our own change.
Once that’s in place, we’ll reach out to our neighbours (other schools, other institutions, etc.), asking them to follow suit and declare their own state of emergency, coming up with their own charters. Then, and only then, will we reach to our local Council.
We can start to imagine what the opening statement of our negotiations will be: ‘This is what we took responsibility for, and this is what we’ve done. This is what we’re proud of. We’d love to work with you and show you what can happen when a big problem is broken up into manageable issues.’
This week, Mayor of Hackney Phillip Glanville made a commitment – in front of an organised group of Hackney Citizens – to use the Fair Energy Mark when choosing the next energy supplier for Hackney’s new energy company. This happened as he was presented with commitments made by schools, churches, mosques, and other civil society institutions taking themselves seriously. These institutions delivered on their own commitments and, as an extension to their actions, got their local Council to follow suit and focus on a winnable target.
Of course big and rapid changes need to take place for the impact of climate change to be stopped and, even (as the University of Cambridge’s new research centre on climate repair aims to achieve), reversed. Of course we need inspiring leaders like Greta Thunberg: she is an amazing wake-up call to our world. But I would argue that such big and rapid changes will only happen at the speed needed if all of us focus on what is on our doorstep.
Let’s not ask of others what we should ask of ourselves.