Sunday, March 29, 2015

What we don't talk about when we don't talk about The Big Ask

It's been ten years, more or less, since Friends of the Earth's climate change campaign The Big Ask was launched in May 2005. The campaign that ultimately gave the UK the world's first Climate Change Act three years later.

Yet here we are in 2015, and I'm still in awe not just of its success but of its afterlife in other European countries. 

Did you know that in the intervening decade, our sister groups elsewhere in Europe have been (often successfully) pressing for legally binding climate emissions targets using the British model as a starting point?

This is - in short - one heckuva campaign.

So how come we the movement so rarely talk about it? More to the point, what are we missing out on, through this curious act of omission?

My experience of The Big Ask was at the grassroots - until the very final phase of the campaign I was active in my local group in London. And for me, it got so many things right at the micro level:
  • Simplicity - you could explain the proposition in any notional elevator you might find yourself in.
  • Broad-based appeal - as the marketing made clear, you didn't need to be a hardcore environmentalist to support it. It didn't assume we were fated to remain a clique. Or if we were, at least we were the kind of clique Thom Yorke wanted to get involved in.

  • Recruitment - it followed that it was the best national campaign for finding new volunteers we ever had in our group.
  • Actions were straightforward and social - quizzes, parties, public meetings, film screenings and more. Stalls were properly fun if you had the right crew and a polar bear costume.
  • It had national and local milestones - you could see how far you could take your MP in support of The Big Ask - and each success built momentum. This was gamification avant la lettre.
  • It brought groups together - teams of volunteers going into strange and unknown parts of London to campaign was tremendous for bonding and morale.
And did I mention that we won? :)

All of this - and more besides - combined to make The Big Ask a compelling, easy-to-replicate model for grassroots climate organisingOr - if you prefer the language of marketing - an extraordinarily potent meme. It was one of two times for me  (the other being The Bee Cause) that what we've been doing as Friends of the Earth has really felt viral.

A few qualifications

Having spoken to many more staff and local group members since those marvellous days, I appreciate that it didn't feel like that for everyone. For some of you, the campaign lacked depth. For others, a concentration on climate meant less time for other issues. 

That's fine - I'm not writing this to change your mind. This was my truth as a local activist and I don't expect it to be everybody else's. Nor am I implying The Big Ask is above criticism.

But I will anticipate one possible argument by being clear that none of what I've written should be interpreted as flying the flag for parliamentary petitions. This is about impact, not specific tactics. And I could have written a similar post using Transition Towns or The Bee Cause as a case study and presented you with almost the same conclusions as I do below.

What we don't talk about when we don't talk about The Big Ask

When we leave out The Big Ask from our conversation as a movement, we don't just leave out an occasion for nostalgia, we omit an opportunity to remind ourselves what it is to be successful.

When our national campaigns and grassroots activities have the kind of characteristics I've been talking about - the straightforwardness, the sociability, the score-keeping, the forward drive and all of that - then we have the kind of political and cultural reach that environmentalism needs. It's a prerequisite of making big changes to the world and then making them stick.

That's why The Big Ask matters to me, and why, all self-celebration aside, I think it's so useful that we look back before going forward.

Working out what 'the next Big Asks' will be will be a collective endeavour. It will almost certainly be different to what has gone before, and no one person, activist or staff member - will have the whole answer. The process we're going through to achieve an organisational goal will doubtless help at a strategic level. But that's different from a campaign or a grassroots mobilisation.

Perhaps in the meantime a thousand ideas can bloom around the country and we can see which ones stick, which ones have heft.

Talking about The Big Ask - for me - means all of these ideas stay in play. 

So, let's talk.

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