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I had a conversation with a young activist recently who said she just loved change. She wanted ‘just to be involved in change’, and this seemed to mean any change, change perhaps for its own sake.

organizational changeI think this is not an uncommon sentiment amongst campaigners and activists. I remember feeling somewhat similar myself when I was her age.
Activists of course think of themselves as agents of change, in fact, ‘Change Agent’ has now become a job title.

But in this era where the pace and quantity of change is quite overwhelming, how helpful is this in getting the ‘green’ message across?

Donald Trump has a frightening adeptness at reading the underlying fears of disaffected groups. In his speech of acceptance as the Republican delegate he offered reassurance as if he was a benign parental figure calming a child after a nightmare. ’I will keep you safe’, was the message. This was chilling as it seemed to me to read with frightening accuracy the collective emotional need of the moment.

‘Globalization, climate change, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, these and other developments ensure that we all now live in an age of anxiety.’ says Paul Hoggett in his recent blog post for CPA.
‘We know that, unlike emotions such as jealousy, anxiety is “free floating”, it has no single focus but exists as a fluid, visceral and intangible affect that seeks an object to anchor itself in……This is what populist politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson do, they give this intangible but powerful feeling a focus.’

We live in an era of so much change. Some is good and some bad, but the sheer quantity of it, makes people wary I think about anything that demands more adaptation to the new. Trump, The Tea Party and reactionary groups are given support they perhaps would not have had a few years ago because they have woven reassurances that they will prevent or reverse change, into their stories.

This is why the EU referendum result is peculiarly paradoxical and why the result was such a shock to many who voted for it. People who voted to leave find they have voted for change when what they wanted was an end to, a slowing of, or a reversal of change. The importance of nostalgia, as a motivation for ‘Brexit’ is self evident.

The underlying anxiety about change during the referendum campaign anchored itself, I think, in a variety of objects, immigrants, the north south divide, the wealthy elite, EU bureaucracy etc. But the deeper anxiety about environmental change and planetary crisis must be there too, in all the polarisation of positions, the rise of extremism, anxieties about mass migration etc. The awareness that catastrophic environmental change is on its way is the constant noise in the background shouting loudly at a level just below conscious awareness - the tinnitus that we try to ignore.

In an age in which there is so much to be frightened of, anything that can provide reassurance is surely like nectar to bees. One of the problems I believe for the environmental movement in terms of spreading its message is that it is associated with change in an era when change has become particularly threatening. Its identity as a movement for radical change, is right, in one sense, but actually innacurate in another. What’s hoped for in the long term is a future in which the eco-system remains in steady balance. To achieve this, in the short term, radical cultural, political and economic change is seen to be necessary, but the aim in the long term is stability and continuity.

This is a challenge I think to the self image of many activists - and also perhaps psychotherapists? We like to think of ourselves as in the vanguard of those who see the need for change and embrace it. Can we prevent, the wish to be leading change, blinding us to how anxiety provoking change might be to the very people we would like to see embrace it? People, for example, like my elderly aunt who got in a furious panic about having to replace her light bulbs for more ‘sustainable’ low energy ones and created a huge stock pile of the old style bulbs.

The only way to safeguard a future of sustainability and balance is to green our politics, society and ways of living. The green movement can offer above any other political force at the moment the power to reassure, not in a shallow manipulative way, but because its message is the only one which holds the key to a safe future.

Sarah Deco


Other articles on this subject

An Unravelling World in Need of Radical Repair by Chris Robertson

Britain & Europe: What Moves People? by Paul Hoggett

Europe, Climate Change: Imagining Oneself to be an Exceptionby Paul Hoggett