Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Update-a-lude: ADC to CAC

I am no longer an Activism Development Coordinator.

I am a Community Activism Coordinator.

Otherwise, service continues as normal.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Regional Gatherings are go

We're about to set sail on another round of Regional Gatherings for Friends of the Earth local activists and other friends of Friends of the Earth - seven networking and training events between late 2014 and Spring 2015 covering every English region. 

And I'm doing some convening and coordinating work to kick this into gear, since my team is responsible for project managing each event.

Dates and locations are being pinned down ASAP, but in parallel with that we'd like to get thinking about what the Gatherings will cover. Just like our annual festival/conference Basecamp, we're keen to get as much input as possible from local activists and - well, anyone with an opinion - into the development of these events. 

Here is some of my informal thinking - fairly evolutionary rather than revolutionary, I think, but I'd really welcome a dialogue here with anyone who's interested. As well as the questions below, I'm particularly interested in your best experiences of Gatherings and other events, what we could replicate and where we could innovate.

Feel free to reply with any views here (although this is strictly an informal space - talk to me at work if you want to contact me officially). 

Obligatory caveat: these are my thoughts rather than any official statement, written in sand rather than on tablets of stone, et cetera, et cetera. You know the score. :-)

What are Gatherings for?

The core aims of Regional Gatherings in general are straightforward and uncontroversial – to put on an event where participants can:

  • Network together
  • Learn from each other as well as from staff 
  • Get updates from Friends of the Earth and feed back in turn.
  • Have a rich and rewarding experience. 

It's the question of content where things get interesting, and for me there's some key lessons from previous events we need to apply

A Gathering can't be all things to all people

One key lesson for me previous rounds of Regional Gatherings is that it’s hard – not to say counterproductive – to meet all needs with a single one-day event with two to three staff in attendance. It may well be better to plan separate events/teleconferences which give the issue the time it needs and ensure an engaged audience. 

It may also be more appropriate to do a dedicated event for a beginners (which curiously enough is what we're planning to do) rather than trying to stretch the audience too wide for one event. I occasionally describe environmental campaigning and Friends of the Earth in particular as like a long-running soap opera - so much has gone on before that getting people up to speed is a job in itself. 

So agenda-building is always a two-stage process:  while it's great to get lots of ideas from everyone, and there's a lot of campaigns, issues, policy areas and skills we could cover, the corollary of that is that at some point we have to arrive at a manageable agenda for a Gathering and a Plan B for anything we can't cover.

So, what do we prioritise? What are the issues we're going to unite and prepare for action around as a movement?

Let local groups be local groups 

Another vital principle, particularly in light of the success of our annual Basecamp festival, is to let local groups be local groups. That means not just getting their input into content development, but to supporting them to have networking spaces as well as to suggest and run their own sessions. 

In other words: If the relationship between Friends of the Earth and its local groups is as peer-to-peer as possible, let's create and run events based on that assumption. 

So, what format of networking works best? (remember, not everyone knows each other and the beauty of these events is that we can bring together unfamiliar as well as familiar configurations of people) How can we best create the conditions for dynamic peer-to-peer learning and support?

Basecamp and questions of style

Gatherings are popular with our experienced activists and I feel we have broadly an approach and a model which works. But it’s worth saying here and underlining several times that Basecamp has been a game-changer in terms of our approach to what's possible with activist events. A more relaxed approach, a wide variety of sessions, a focus on making the experience inspirational as well as educational - all of this has been a breath of fresh air for us,

And so while much of the carnivalesque Basecamp is too time intensive and expensive to replicate in full, for this coming round of Gatherings we are asking ourselves (and you) if there’s learning we can apply from it?

PS - we can has working group? 

Incidentally, what we're also looking for is a small working group of friendly local activists who can be a sounding board and an inspiration for the Gatherings. Expressions of interest from people outside Friends of the Earth are also welcome - I think at least one external perspective could well be very useful. Again, expressions of interest to my work alter ego at the usual e-mail address.

Arsene Wenger: playerish

I'm very excited about this team because - and I don't know if this word exists - they are 'playerish'.
Arsene Wenger

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Well done Ancillary Justice! Some thoughts on the Best Novel Hugo

I've read 25 Hugo-award winning novels, which feels about right given my reading rate and omnivorous interest in fantasy and SF.

They range from the amazing (A Canticle For Leibowitz, The Diamond Age, The Dispossessed, Hyperion, Stand on Zanzibar) to the just plain terrible (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). And like the Oscars, it's hard not to feel the award has sometimes been given to the right author for the wrong book: The City & The City for China Mieville, say, rather than Perdido Street Station.

Nonetheless, for this reader the Hugo voters have had a pretty good track record - 1 in 5 based on my sample - of recognising great work. And most of the other winners sit comfortably above the average.

2014 - may the most quite good win?

We realised that we'd read three and a half of this year's nominees without really intending to do so (Larry Correia being mainly an American phenomenon, best I can tell). Of those we had read, the eventual winner, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, was comfortably the best of the bunch.

It's a curiously old fashioned but solidly structured story - a throw back to the days of 1970's/1980's experimental space opera. with some nice ideas about language and identity creating enough of a sense of Otherness successfully challenging the reader to struggle for empathy. I liked it a lot - a solid 8/10.

And as others have pointed out, the fact that a book which unfussily challenges the gender binary while still being at the same time a pretty commercial proposition is a pretty strong rebuke to the idea that you can't have your literary cake and eat it too.

Neptune's Brood is Charles Stross back in picaresque space journey mode, with lots of great vignettes and a fascinating take on interstellar currency in a largely sub-light speed economy. Stross on a so-so day still beats most people's year, but Brood is badly let down by an underwhelming ending.

Parasite, I'm assured is also quite good and an interesting indictment of Big Pharma, but also loses traction towards the end.

The half I've read is - naturally - the Wheel Of Time series, where I'm pretty sure I got to book six or seven before giving up: bloated, fatigued and uncaring. The first book is genuinely rather good, but as a series it's better analysed in terms of engineering, creating a story so large it's practically visible from space, rather than any great literary merit.

So the best book won, but I do wish that there had been a really strong contender this year, a truly first rate novel. I'd like a shortlist which felt not just like a celebration of speculative fiction, but a gauntlet thrown down to it. 

Maybe next year?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Campaign Organisers - recruitment time again

And here's my soon to be published article in Change Your World, Friends of the Earth's in-house magazine for local groups, celebrating our first round of  Campaign Organisers and putting out a call for more to join the party.

They came to Basecamp [our annual conference] from all across the country. And from fracking to bee-friendly flowerbeds, from running on sun to stalls and socials in their area, they had stories to tell, plans to share. And whether on the high street or on Facebook, they were involving local people in their campaigns.

Yes – the Campaign Organisers were in town!

Since our accredited training programme began around 9 months ago, we’ve supported a first wave of Organisers in local groups to start new community campaigns. Basecamp was a chance for them to meet one another again, as well as to learn, celebrate and make new connections with other activists.

As we now look for a new band of Organisers this summer, it’s a good point to reflect on our aims and intentions. And it all boils down to empowerment.

Over one to two years, we empower participants to run a great local campaign. But the training, coaching and skill-sharing is also intended to help them to empower others - creating not just one but many great environmental champions around the country.

And with Campaign Organisers we’re not just providing training and support, we’re building a community.

For more information about how to apply this summer and to download the Programme Guide, see If you have any questions, contact us on or 020 7490 0210.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Isaac Asimov hacks the future!

There's an interesting tension in science-fiction between the individual as the agent of change and as its object. At one end of the spectrum, self-actualization fantasies like Dune. At the other, Everyman at the mercy of technological change or social revolution.

Most genre-work, concerned with telling a rollicking good story, sits somewhere between these poles. Isaac Asimov's Foundation is reckless enough to try to occupy both at the same time.

And that's what I love it for.

From the forties, Foundation is a set of linked short stories about the titular research institute on Terminus, a distant colony of a declining Galactic Empire, surrounded by enemies, trying to keep the light of civilisation burning on the edge of space. 

Yet Terminus is also the pet project of a long-dead psycho-historian (part sociologist, part mathematician, in case you were wondering) determined to prevent a millennial descent into barbarism across known space as the empire collapses. 

Each crisis the planet experiences over the centuries is solved by following the path he predicted through the prevailing political, social and economic trends. By anticipating future history, his ultimate aim is for its people to found a new galactic order. 

It's nothing short of an attempt to hack the future on an interstellar scale. long con to end all long cons. 

And it's small wonder that all Foundation's protagonists - mayors, traders and spies - are all trickster archetypes, outwitting kings, bureaucrats and priests through innate charm, superior technology and the knowledge that Asimov's brand of dialectical materialism is on their side.

Each story is a well formed puzzle - how will the plucky Foundation defeat the superior firepower of their neighbours, trade gadgets for precious raw materials, or get themselves of the hook of religious obscurantism? 

Asimov's occasionally maligned writing style here is at least several notches above serviceable - helped greatly by the format, the low page count and the gravitas granted by the premise. Admittedly, it does take him until the final story to introduce a named woman character with dialogue (and even then she turns out to be a shrewish wife), and it's no surprise then that the novel has something of a boy's club feel to it. 

But I'll forgive a lot for vision and chutzpah, and Foundation has it by the bag-full. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Sheldon Plan

Typo amusement on my dad's much loved sixties paperback of Asimov's Foundation, as galactic visionary Hari Seldon is supplanted by Hari Sheldon, his twenty-first century theoretical physicist alter ego.

Well, Sheldon's looking for a new area in which to continue his research - maybe psychohistory could be it?

The 'brilliant' Sheldon's Plan continues in the sequels too, it seems

Saturday, August 9, 2014

An incomplete list of amazing books

This is my reading list, tell me yours

Adams, Douglas - The Hitch-hiker's Guide To The Galaxy
Armstrong, Karen - The Bible
Austen, Jane - Pride And Prejudice

Bronte, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
Brunner, John - Stand On Zanzibar
Burroughs, William S - Naked Lunch
Butler, Octavia - The Parable Of The Sower

Carter, Angela - The Magic Toyshop
Castellucci, Cecil and Rugg, Jim - The Plain Janes
Chodron, Pema - When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice For Difficult Times
Cupitt, Don - The Sea Of Faith

Deutscher, Isaac - Stalin
Disch, Thomas M - Camp Concentration

Formiani, Heather - Men: The Darker Continent
Fromm, Erich - Escape From Freedom

Gaiman, Neil and Pratchett, Terry - Good Omens
Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan - Kinsey
Gay, Peter - The Naked Heart
Gentle, Mary - Grunts
Godin, Seth - Tribes
Grossman, Lev - The Magicians

Juergensmeyer, Mark - Gandhi's Way: A Handbook Of Conflict Resolution
Juster, Norton - The Phantom Tolbooth

Le Guin, Ursula - A Wizard of Earthsea
Lee, Harper - To Kill A Mockingbird
Levi, Primo - If This Is A Man
Lovecraft, HP - The Call Of Cthulhu And Other Weird Tales

Marcus, Greil - Invisible Republic
McIntosh, Alistair - Soil And Soul
MacLeod, Ken - The Star Fraction
Marquez, Garcia Gabriel - One Hundred Years Of Solitude
Mieville, China - Perdido Street Station
Millett, Kate - Sexual Politics
Morrison, Grant - The Invisibles

Newman, Joshua A C - Shock: Social Science Fiction
Nin, Anais - Delta Of Venus
Noon, Jeff - Pollen

Okri, Ben - The Famished Road

Sabatini, Rafael - Scaramouche
Savage, Jon - England's Dreaming
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich
Stephenson, Neil - Snow Crash
Stapledon, Olaf - First And Last Men
Stross, Charles - Accelerando

Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Tolkien, J R R - The Hobbit
Tolstoy, Leo - Anna Karenina
Tweet, Jonathan - Over The Edge

Vandermeer, Jeff - Shriek: An Afterword
Various - Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying #1

Wolfe, Tom - The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Friday, August 8, 2014

Environmental action is this easy

And if it's not, it should be.

Page two of Sideburns, January 1977

Monday, August 4, 2014

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Applying Wheaton's Law to campaigning

So, how's this for a proposal: once a year every campaigning group or charity - big or small - parades this man's image around their office or meeting place like a secular saint.

Photo by Genevieve available under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Yes, that Wil Wheaton. Of Star Trek: TNG, Big Bang Theory and latterly internet thought leadership fame.


To remind us of Wheaton's Law - that's why? 

See more on Know Your Meme

Wil originally applied the term to online gaming.

"Arcades were more than just magnificent geek Shangri-Las, filled with all sorts of video games and pinball machines. They were a vital part of my generation’s social development. If I beat another kid in a two player game and taunted him mercilessly, with explicit references to his mother's sex life and my role in it, the way some online gamers do today, he would have justifiably kicked the everliving shit out of me. 

So I learned – in arcades – the importance of good sportsmanship. Because arcades were real places, staffed by real people, we had to worry about much more than getting kicked off a server if we were complete idiots in a game. I guess this is a double-edged sword, and I’m feeling like a cranky old man by even mentioning it, but would you all do me a favor? When you’re playing online, have fun, and don’t be a dick, okay?"

Now, I' m not saying the world of campaigning has the kind of trash-talk and hate-speech problems that online gaming has. No, our sins are generally different - omission rather than commission

As activists sometimes we can be so committed, focused, passionate, so busy telling truth to power that we forget to be kind to ourselves and others. Get the task done above all else, right? 

Yet every time people fall out over ways of working, don't welcome someone properly at a meeting, don't listen to each other, or fail to establish relationships of trust, Wheaton's Law isn't being followed. We're too busy, too focused, perhaps, to be good sports.

And this isn't a hypothetical problem. In my line of work, I only generally get to see the cases where relations between activists have broken down, rather than those where people have just drifted away or never gotten properly involved. But there's enough of those to make me think that the tip of the iceberg is quite big enough already.

This isn't a blame game - I get that we're human, we're fallible and I don't exclude myself from this scrutiny. What I'm saying is not just that our relations with others are the social glue that underpins our campaigning, but that more importantly they have intrinsic worth and need to be worked at.

So to make sure our spaces are more welcoming, to make norms of friendliness, civility and mutual support are explicit - not implicit - we need to be reminded of this Hippocratic commandment on which all other ground-rules are based- don't be a dick.

How? Well, this helpful diagram is a good start, if somewhat recursive. But feel free to use the comments section to make your own suggestions or add useful links. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Missing the wood for the trees with Voltaire

The point of biography is to tell the story of a life and - if possible - to tell you why that life in particular was significant.

Ian Davidson's Voltaire: A Life does an excellent job of the first but at best a middling job of the second. To be fair, he is clear in his intentions. He hasn't set out to write a literary or philosophical biography - the clue is in the title. And it's an easy read of a busy and varied career. 

But why do we keep returning to Voltaire nearly three centuries later? It's for what has lasted those long years - works like his English Letters  and Candide, his campaigns against the ancien regime's inept, brutal and theocratic criminal justice system, as well as his symbolic value as a rallying point for rationality.

Davidson may give us Voltaire the man, but does not provide enough context and backdrop to render his real contributions to the world at all meaningful to the reader. Instead, he pays too much attention to his financial and domestic activities, the day-to-day minutiae all too available from so prolific a correspondent (20,000 letters over his lifetime). 

All of which would be fine, if a social history of Voltaire and his life was what was most needed. But, in an age where Enlightenment values are under attack as never before, as Davidson himself notes - there has never been a better time to return to and examine their legacy.

In his attacks on miscarriages of justice, Voltaire mocks the idea that one eighth of a proof, times eight, adds up to a proof. Davidson's biography effectively has the same flaw - the assumption that a wealth of factual information about his subject will give you a sense of the whole. 

It's a necessary beginning in the search for significance - of course. But only a beginning.