Context For A Theory Of Change

Last year the Irish Environmental Network’s funding assessors suggested that Feasta produce a Theory of Change document. This was a challenging assignment for reasons described below, but it was useful in raising many questions about assumptions we have as Feasta stakeholders, members, and activists. These assumptions relate to what we are trying to achieve, who we need to persuade, what will be the best way to persuade them, what actions will help us transform our economic and environmental systems to avert catastrophe, what types of changes can be made in the short amount of time given to us by climate scientists, and WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON IN THE U.S. AND U.K. RIGHT NOW???!!!  Oops, sorry for shouting, I accidentally turned on the evening news. Ahem, where were we?  Oh yes…

A theory of change is a type of general plan for an organization in which long term goals are defined and then mapped backward to identify the appropriate strategies and preconditions to achieve the organization’s mission.

Feasta’s mission covers a broad mandate, and multiple programs.  Feasta working groups include currency, climate, commons, land value tax, basic income, and more.

The first draft of Feasta’s theory of change may be found at this web page and in its 2018 Annual report. The relatively complex diagram shows a proposed relationship between short-term preconditions, longer term preconditions, global level preconditions, and FEASTA’s goals, pilot programs, and actions.

Putting together a theory of change for even a single Feasta program, such as Cap and Share or CapGlobalCarbon, is a daunting task.  Taking a step back and combining theories of change across multiple programs under Feasta’s umbrella is even more challenging.  This will be an ongoing conversation over many years and likely produce several different iterations, approaches, and paradigms.

One starting point may be to examine the context for a Theory of Change, including assumptions about society and the process of social and political change.  For example, how can grassroots action affect top-down political structures?  Some approaches may be found in activist literature, such as Saul Alinsky’s landmark book “Rules for Radicals,” or the more recent book “Rules for Revolutionaries” by Becky Bond and Zack Exley, which applied lessons from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign for U.S. President.

Another difficult question is, who is Feasta trying to convince?  In the U.S., one political party has staked out a strong position of climate denial.  Is it worth even talking to those people?  Or is time better spent working to defeat them at the ballot box?  If that half (or 30%) of the electorate is written off, are there enough liberals and independents (do “moderates” actually exist?) to accomplish the kind of change we are looking at (national and global climate protection)?

In working with liberals (at least in the U.S.), successful change may require catering to the particular quirks or cultural biases of a constituency.  For example, this song by comedian Roy Zimmerman can be a painful reminder of the urban middle-class (white) cultural bubble we sometimes find ourselves in.  Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) recently depicted her observations of “moderates” who are dismissive of her large scale ambitious Green New Deal or plans for a government-run universal health care plan.  She summed it up as: “meh.”  They criticize her efforts, but when she tries to find out what they actually would support, she says their response is almost like a ‘shrug and oh well’ political stance.  Across the aisle, conservative opponents of climate protection are very outspoken and aggressive about preventing anything that will endanger fossil fuel company profits, but many liberals and moderates who actually do care about the planet have an almost passive and abstracted attitude, as if they were in a peaceful natural foods store perusing a new organic item on the shelf (which they seem to prefer over more rough and tumble political discourse).  How can these people be mobilized to defend the planet, even if doing so takes them out of their middle-class comfort zone?

The concept of the Overton Window  is important to understand for theories of change.  It defines what is “politically acceptable.”  For example, the election of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was a shock to the Overton Window.  Mainstream media in the U.S. is still trying to figure out how her election, along with the passing of Senator John McCain (the last Republican who seemed to care about being “bipartisan”) fits into their narrative of a moderate middle in American politics.  They really really want there to be a reasonable, slightly right-of-center “middle,” an audience they can understand and cater to.  But I am not convinced that there is anyone actually there, other than maybe David Brooks and/or Thomas Friedman.

Feasta’s work on climate change has been guided by science.  CapGlobalCarbon’s  proposed economywide cap on carbon would be set based on what scientists advise would be a safe level.  However, this may come into conflict with some Americans’ religiously-based worldviews.  Climate science says that humans not only can, but are already, impacting the whole planet.  This calls into question the belief that there is some cosmic unknowable force guiding everything where humans are powerless.  As people become more literate in science, it can affect their view of the world, and even delegitimize people’s religious cosmology, calling into question how they live their lives, especially if they and their whole family are coal miners.  To avoid cognitive dissonance, such people may be drawn to climate denial, which allows them to preserve the previously held beliefs rather than be forced to confront and disavow their communities and family history.

Feasta is more of a think-tank, not a politically-focused organization trying to influence elections.  Its theories of change involve developing big, systems-level ideas, and bringing them into the marketplace of ideas.  The political arena is one area where this can happen quickly, especially in the U.S. in a presidential election year.  However, any group trying to engage in the democratic process in the U.S. must realize there are serious flaws in our democracy as currently set up. At the top of the list is the pervasiveness of money in politics.  For these reasons, voter disenfranchisement, and the structural inequities that demoralize front-line communities must be opposed.

One of the things that sets Feasta apart from many other environmentally-oriented groups is its focus on thinking systemically.  This can be traced to its founder, Richard Douthwaite.  Feasta’s Theory of Change should address the political system, the money system, the economic and carbon system.    Individual action is fine, if it is leading to further political engagement and activism.  Otherwise, in a sense, it is just a hobby.  Feasta must influence political leaders, governments, civil society, and the media that its ideas for social transformation are not only reasonable, but necessary.

The book “Rules for Revolutionaries” mentioned above describes Big Organizing as setting up processes using volunteers to reach every single voter.  Feasta’s limited resources make that seem a far off dream, but memes can spread like wildfire, and concepts like basic income are taking off.

But it is important for Feasta to not be hemmed in by labels.  Feasta should join and build broad coalitions.  Environmentalists cannot do it alone. In the U.S., environmentalists are getting crushed in almost every way nationally.  So we have to make our issues relevant to other groups, and we have to talk about their issues as being equally important to ours.  In forming coalitions, we must stay true to who we are, and avoid groups whose goals are in direct conflict with ours.  This means no Milton Friedmans (even if he once talked about a version of basic income).

Is Climate the right frame?  For 2% of us, yes.  For everyone else, it is way below other more “essential needs” such as bread and butter, providing for my family, reducing cognitive dissonance, preserving tribal affiliation, and more.  So, the economic lens is probably better in defining which policies to choose.  Among economic policies, Feasta can focus on policies that give people money such as climate dividends/basic income, and/or turning people into clean energy entrepreneurs (free solar on your rooftop and you get the profits).  Feasta could support democratically controlled energy systems that subvert big money and dirty energy monopolies.

Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything” linked climate change to capitalism. The Overton Window on this subject has been changing since 2016, with young people talking more openly about the problems they have faced in post-2008-bailout capitalism.  The “free market” does not seem free to them.  Although talking about modifying capitalism has been taboo in the U.S. for decades, this may be changing, and may allow for a broader discussion of the big issues.  Basic income and climate dividends can raise those issues, and also propose a solution to address those problems.  Feasta’s role can be to help people get educated on those big issues.

This discussion of Theory of Change has been a bit abstract, but I’d like to end this essay by drawing from experiences I had in California working on climate change issues. I found that people were excited to be part of a social movement if we made it “cool,” and built community. Saving the planet is its own reward, but if it was cool, fun, emotionally rewarding, and built community at the same time, we could help each other avoid the all-too-common activist’s burn-out.  As Feasta’s Theory of Change evolves, I encourage Feasta’s stakeholders to contact the Board of Trustees with your ideas, including context such as the topics listed above.  Changing the world is hard, and Feasta has taken on some of the biggest, most challenging pieces of the puzzle.  Luckily we have wisdom from Richard Douthwaite’s work, Feasta’s track record of writings on these subjects, and our many allies who have been working in this field.  The yellow vests and the recent student climate strikes give some hope that people are awakening to the problems and hungry for the type of solutions that Feasta can provide.  And if you happen to live in the U.S. or U.K., I am so sorry, I hope people return to their senses soon, and end this complete top-to-bottom insanity.  Cheers!

Featured image: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/first-leaves-1165468

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

2 Replies to “Context For A Theory Of Change”

  1. Notes towards a theory of change

    Every theory of change is wrong. It’s necessary to remember this to retain one’s critical capacities, including about one’s own ideas, to avoid dogmatism and so as not to become a “know whats best for you” which is the fate of people who believe that they hold the truth and use it in their dealings for and over other people. This is a particular problem in a society where specialisation and the division of labour means many people lack even the rudiments of an overview.

    Nevertheless we are fated to operate as if theories of change are right – if only tentatively, good enough for now. The ideas that one is most sure of are one’s faiths – the things that one does not like to re-examine. Sometimes this is because to re-examine would de-stablise ones’s life arrangements and relationships.

    For many people theories of change are implicit – this is an example of an implicit theory of change held by many people: we live in a democracy and if change is needed we should write to elected political representative about it – or even set up a party to get elected to impliment the desired change. Most people don’t think about this, they just act as if this were true.

    An explicit theory of political change might be something like this: The political arrangements are part of the system that has to be changed – structures of political power reflect structures of economic power that are unsustainable. Even though all have one vote only those who have greater purchasing power at their disposal, those who are well connected, those who are well publicised, well represented by lawyers, journalists, and PR agencies, those whose operations are well hidden in secrecy jurisdictions and tax havens, those who well defended by securities services…are far far more influential than those who are not. Indeed during periods of crisis the failure of existing arrangements are likely to be characterised by large numbers of people whose domestic and household relationships, and their emotional support networks, completely break down. Life becomes a daily struggle to survive. People like this have even less chance of getting an overview and intervening in the complexity of political processes.

    These institutions and arrangements of socio-economic and political power are forces for inertia, for the status quo.

    Change happens anyway, whether we like it or not. The issue is whether we like the change that is happening and whether we can change the direction it is going in anyway. For thirty years, since the late 1980s the key phrase to express issues of environmental, social and economic policy has been “sustainability”. As a policy it meant the ability of systems to continue to operate – to be sustained. It also has a more specific meaning of not compromising the needs of future generations.

    The word has become an empty slogan and have changed to the point that they no longer can be sustained. So they will change and communities WILL HAVE TO respond to those changes.

    Against the inertia of power structures it did not prove possible to achieve sufficient change to avert an ongoing series of changes – like climate change, energy depletion and the like, that once seemed to be in the distant future, but which are now evident now.

    Human system change now therefore means responding to ecological system changes and energy system changes in order to help communities survive – how we might do this is suggested in my article on a Lifeboat economy, also on this website…Hopefully, in the process, when communities have woken up to how bad things can get, acting to head off what would, or will, be an even worse catastrophe through a collective dynamic for positive change that will get under way. Otherwise the legacy political power structures, defending legacy economic and energy arrangements will retain their influence long enough to draw us all into the very worse kind of hell – of complete extinction. This is now a real possibility…..though I may be wrong….

  2. Yes. It’s Brian’s lifeboats for me. Successful passages to shore will be charted, less by good navigation and more by errors in our carefully-drawn chart. If we’ve mind to see them, those errors (to which we are blind now) will provide new land marks. That’s also how we settle the new landscapes, after landfall – a town into its terrain of woodland, fields, rivers, roads, canals… – a craftsman into her materials, a grower into her land and an individual into her community. Hope is, that the knotting of all those things can emerge, bruised perhaps, but still living and more or less intact after the crash. What do we have but romance? I reckon, that the charts we draw, could be of that knotting of busy, egalitarian culture, with soil, the wider ecology and the shedding of both fossil and biofuels. The present (which creates the future), is utterly black. We cannot change that analysis. As I’ve just written to a friend – we can only choose between a selection of self-chosen tragedies. Nemesis was our consumer-choice. She is ours and it remains possible (I know, against the odds) that we can make her beautiful and true.

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