More Context For A Theory Of Change

In a previous post I discussed Feasta’s development of a Theory of Change document in response to a suggestion from the Irish Environmental Network’s funding assessors.  A theory of change maps out the assumptions, preconditions, and appropriate strategies necessary for an organization to achieve its goals and mission.  In some ways, an organizational theory of change encompasses a theory of how the world works, and what can make it change.

For an organization like Feasta, which is trying to respond to the climate/environmental crisis by changing the rules of the world’s environmental/economic system toward sustainability, understanding and engaging with the political reality on the ground presents a series of challenges.  The narrative goes as follows: First, Feasta comes up with solutions to various problems.  Then, Feasta communicates those solutions to changemakers, policy makers, decision makers, and the public who become advocates and begin implementing those solutions. Pilot projects at the local level are successful and then are taken up at higher levels.  Eventually, the Earth is saved from annihilation.

But that narrative could be wrong in countless ways.  To draw a metaphor, it is arguable that the most effective climate change activist on Earth today is Greta Thunberg, but six months ago she was just a humble but appropriately disgruntled student in Sweden.  An effective Theory of Change could help Greta spread the message, but it doesn’t have to predict that Greta would be the particular messenger.

In the previous blog, I raised a number of questions to consider regarding Feasta’s (or any sustainability-oriented organization’s) Theory of Change, but provided few answers.  Here, I will pose even more questions, and OK, maybe even attempt a few incomplete answers.

  • Who is our constituency?  For Feasta, let’s say: like-minded individuals, activists, and policy makers.
  • Who are our allies?  Feasta works with other individuals and groups in the sustainability space, and for Cap and Share and other initiatives, this includes equity and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (though some FEASTA members have concerns about, for example, SDG 8, as it includes Economic Growth).
  • Who are our adversaries?  Fossil fuel producers, lobbyists, the politicians they have bought off, the financial interests under their influence (i.e. The Global Monetocracy), and the voters who are supporting them over their own, future generations’, and the planet’s well-being.  Also, perhaps, the “moderates” who propose insufficient solutions and hope to co-opt our constituencies for their own purposes, while the systemic problems worsen.  (Whether such moderates are potential allies or adversaries is ripe fodder for further discussion, and may result in different Theories of Change.)
  • How should Feasta divide its time and resources between working with allies versus convincing and/or fighting adversaries?  No easy answer here.
  • What makes for a convincing argument?  Can framing and communication techniques help advance the cause?  Here is where George Lakoff and George Marshall can help.
  • What does “winning” look like?  How do fossil fuel companies fit into the solutions framework?  For example, do we need them to agree to the proposed solutions in advance?  Or is the time for asking their permission to save the planet over and we just need to overpower them and force them to comply, and use harsh tactics such as jail time for their executives (“Cap and Jail”?), revoking their corporate charters, and/or nationalizing their industries (prior to shutting them down)?
  • This begs the question of the virtue of so-called “Win-win” solutions.  The case for market-based mechanisms traditionally relied on this.  But it did not gain traction.  Environmental justice groups remain skeptical of carbon pricing and the “free market.”  Perhaps the “win-win” approach needs to be reframed as “win for the environment; lose for the fossil fuel companies.”  For example, in a Cap & Dividend policy, fossil fuel companies pay, and people get the money.
  • Can we use insights of human psychology to overcome institutional inertia?  We in the climate movement know that people and governments want to avoid radical change at all costs, even if the current system is clearly broken.  Humans desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, and don’t want to face the fact that our chosen lifestyles are ruining the planet and the future for our children.  We are shamed to face our children and admit we were wrong.  The student climate strikers are actually asking us to face facts.  They are giving us an opening to admit we were wrong and to extend our hands to them to work with us to fix what we did.
  • Since Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are coming up, maybe it is a good time for parents to consider teaching their kids something different from what they were taught.  Scientifically literate parents can choose to ingrain a worldview based on science, evolution, and climate change to their children, and avoid non-science-based information when teaching their kids. Anything else may just delay the changes we need to see in society.  We need scientifically literate children (such as the climate strikers).  And we need kids who believe in humanist ethics that we are all in this together.

Now for a more cynical lens through which to view these questions:

  • At the beginning of the previous blog, my narrative was briefly interrupted when I accidentally turned on the evening news in the U.S. and the U.K. and had a moment similar to that depicted in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” This was meant to highlight the considerable gap between a nice abstract theory of change, and our current messy reality, because, let’s face it, for the past few years the political situation (crisis?) in the U.S. and U.K. has called into question basic assumptions such as: Are people reasonable?  Do facts matter to them? Will Western civilization and democracy survive the next 5 years?  Maybe people and/or their elected leaders are having a temper tantrum against economic inequality and globalization at a gut instinct/libido level that they themselves don’t even fully understand on a rational level.  This leaves room for a progressive answer to global inequality (see Piketty), without resorting to anti-immigrant scapegoating and fascism.  Perhaps Brexit and the 2016 U.S. election was the first rage of a toddler.  The yellow vests were the protests of an adolescent.  And a more-coherent teenager/young adult (such as the children’s climate strike) will emerge in the early 2020s (so that we still have time to walk the Earth back from the climate brink).  Interestingly, the actual ages of the actors here are reversed, as the younger people are more level-headed about what needs to happen (i.e. Greta Thunberg taking on global climate leadership from policy makers dozens of years older than her, and U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), as the youngest member of Congress and the biggest champion of a Green New Deal proposal to revision the economy towards sustainability).
  • What are the implications for Feasta’s Theory of Change, if we accept some of the socio-political analysis of books such as Pankaj Mithra’s “The Age of Anger,”  George Monbiot’s “Out of the Wreckage,” Benjamin Barber’s “Jihad Versus McWorld,” or Joanna Macy’s books such as “Active Hope”?  What other books and writings can help inform Feasta’s Theory of Change?  (No really, this is not a rhetorical question, we really are asking for input.)
  • Late-night TV comedian Bill Maher recently asked “Why do they hate us?” but he wasn’t talking about terrorists, his question was about how Republicans seem to hate Democrats, or hate “Blue States” in general (i.e. punitive tax policies, voter disenfranchisement, and more).  George Lakoff’s Moral Politics goes part of the way toward answering that question.  Specific policies are not at issue, it is more about the liberal person being “insubordinate” to the “Strict Father,” and so they must be punished.  But when we (liberals) don’t want to be punished, it just infuriates the Strict Father, whose legitimacy is being called into question, even more.  There must be some way to de-program people from this way of thinking.  What is the modern equivalent of “Re-education camps” for people who pride themselves on being anti-elitist, meaning they don’t read, will disdain advice from university professors, and live in a media bubble that is very hard to pierce with facts that don’t conform to their pre-existing worldview?

Again, more questions were raised than answered.  The Theory of Change remains a work in progress.  But perhaps laying out these issues for discussion can assist in refining our thinking, and making our efforts more effective.  It won’t be easy, but hopefully it will be rewarding, as in providing a livable future for the planet and future generations, people like Greta.

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. 

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