As we confront the climate crisis, is bigger and faster always better?

Is starting small and slow the gateway to the most meaningful social change?

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credit: Illustration by David Doran Background photo: Getty Images

“Scale” has become something of a buzz word in climate movement circles. When we see something inspiring, we often ask: “How do we quickly replicate this everywhere, so we are acting in a way that feels commensurate with the scale and urgency of the climate crisis?” 

As a climate organizer, I’ve often noticed myself seesawing between smaller spaces where I can build deeper relationships and those where I can work at a more global scale. The latter forces my mind and body to overstep its limits to do things that feel more commensurate with the all-pervasive nature of the climate crisis.

But is the conflation of “scale” with “bigger” and “faster” undermining our efforts to usher in the deep and transformative change required to confront a challenge as complex as climate change? Are we at risk of losing the contextual magic and beauty of small-scale, bottom-up solutions when we try to replicate them in places where they did not emerge? And can we really bring the world back within its limits, by working in ways that constantly overstep our own? 

As with all big questions, I don’t have a perfect answer, but what I am learning makes me question my own preoccupation with trying to make things bigger and faster. Here are four explorations about why I am questioning this preoccupation with speed and size, from my vantage point as a white middle-class settler living and working on stolen land in so-called Australia.

1. Could a hyper-focus on size and speed reinforce the systems driving climate change?

First Nations and Global South colleagues remind me that climate change is not a new problem. It is a symptom of systems that have been plaguing humans for centuries — namely capitalism, colonization and the patriarchy, whose daily pressures undermine the deeper connections we need to relate in a healthy way with one another and the natural world.

In a relatively short period of time, these oppressive systems have devastated the Earth, and now many of us are rushing to fix it. But as Einstein said, we can’t solve problems by using the same thinking we used to create them. Addressing climate change is urgent, but to meet it with the gravity of response it demands, perhaps there is an urgency incumbent upon all of us to slow down.

Capitalism needs us to work frenetically. In stressed states, we are incapable of the depth of thought, relationality and insights that could enable us to transform the systems driving climate change. 

When we are constantly focused on a fear of what is going on out there, we tend to disconnect from ourselves and our immediate communities — the people, ideas and relationships we could cultivate to sew our best patch in the quilt of responses needed to address an issue as complex as climate change. 

I was struck when I recently heard an Indian activist working on climate change say he doesn’t identify as a climate activist. To him, “climate” places our attention up in the sky rather than down on the ground, with people and places, where the impacts and the systems driving climate change play out. 

Part of me lapped this wisdom up, while another part, inculcated in whiteness, wouldn’t let me find peace in smaller, grounded places. The draw to perfectionism, urgency and preoccupation with size and speed tugged at me, pushing me to continue building movements thousands of miles wide, even though I knew vast swathes were barely an inch deep. 

As I bore witness to this game of tug-of-war, my mind drifted to a Grace Lee Boggs quote: “Transform yourself to transform the world.” 

2. Could jumping too quickly to big-scale “solutions” do more harm than good?

As I sat with the way that a preoccupation with size and speed locked me into hyper-capitalist modes of work, I started to wonder how this influenced the solutions we posit to the climate crisis. Several examples arose.

Big renewables. I heard from colleagues in India about the way in which energy companies, including those I was campaigning on, like Adani, were simultaneously rolling out massive solar farms on land grabbed from local communities, damaging precious soil needed for food and livelihoods. I learned about how these same big renewables were being built on traditional lands without the benefits flowing back to First Nations people. 

I thought of the images that campaigns I’ve been a part of have projected — solar panels everywhere, shining in the sun against a backdrop of monotonous blue. In some contexts this might be good, but as a monolithic solution to the climate crisis, not so much. I thought about the wisdom of Arundhati Roy, urging us to: “never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple … To try and understand. To never look away.”

I reflected upon the times I had looked away from the deeper systems that caused climate change and instead doubled-down on strategies to simply soften the blow of the players in those systems — campaigning to get companies to be less awful, to invest in cleaner options. 

In failing to confront my own capitalist proclivities toward urgency, growth and simplification, I could see how my campaigning could inadvertently enable what Naomi Klein has termed “disaster capitalism,” where corporations profit from climate change simply by adding lower-carbon options to their portfolios, yet continue fueling inequality.

Big corporate campaigns. I reflected on the corporate campaigns I had helped initiate and spread across Australia and around the world over the past decade. Often, they took the form of directed network campaigns, seeding and supporting ever-increasing numbers of local groups under a single campaign banner. 

While we absolutely need strategies to challenge the corporations driving the climate crisis, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was simply rearranging the tables and chairs of capitalism through these efforts, rather than helping to lay the groundwork for regenerative systems to replace the dominant extractive ones.

Yes, I was pushing companies to stop funding coal, oil and gas, but I was not fundamentally grappling with their underlying power structures and ideologies. There was nothing to stop these companies scaling up wind and solar, in the same way they worked to scale up coal — grabbing land, undermining communities and polluting ecosystems.

It was around this time that I began reading labor organizer Jane McAlevey’s “Raising Expectations, Raising Hell.” McAlevey constructively challenges the corporate campaigning approach I have pursued. She highlights that campaigns focused primarily on quick growth and generating lots of commitments from executives seldom engage deeply with the people who could transform the capitalist system driving so much of the injustice our movements exist to confront — namely the workers. Her message: Moving more slowly and at the scale of relationships and trust leads to more sustainable and transformative change. 

Yes, the corporate campaigns I’ve been part of have won many voluntary policy commitments from company executives. But without a base of collective and organized labor, these commitments are not necessarily durable. There is always a risk that they will be overturned, or that we overlook the transformative work we still have to do beyond those initial commitments.

By contrast, moving away from the focus on fast growth gives us an opportunity to create more durable change. By deeply organizing with and alongside the trade union movement both at home and with folks in the Global South, we could build a serious base of engaged and committed people who can seriously check the inclination of corporations like Adani to pocket massive profits from both coal and solar, while trashing people’s land, health and livelihoods. 

This organizing work takes time, is challenging and deeply context-specific. Yet its potential is huge and extends well beyond the workplace. Organized labor has brought governments and companies to their knees at multiple junctures in our history and it could again, if only we let go of the belief that we don’t have time to organize in this way. 

Big philanthropy. This led me to reflect on why the climate movement doesn’t invest more in longer term organizing approaches that focus more on quality rather than quantity of relationships and participation. 

My attention turned to the role of Big Philanthropy. Reading “The Revolution Will Not be Funded,” I learned how many of the large philanthropic foundations arose in the United States at the height of the civil rights movement — partly in an effort to fund the more moderate parts of the movement, but also partly as tax havens for the wealthy. 

These were times of mass strikes, rallies, freedom rides and lunch counter sit-ins. The prospect of social upheaval threatened the foundations of concentrated wealth, so philanthropists poured money into strategies that would reinforce rather than replace the neoliberal system. 

I reflected upon how, reliance on this kind of philanthropy for climate strategies, risked preferencing the continued growth and expansion of capital and wealth, albeit through a supposedly green lens, over the uncomfortable, long and nuanced work of climate justice. 

I thought about how this agenda trickled down to those of us who receive resources from such funders. Their values become our metrics: Resources must be put towards the drive for big, fast solutions, to turn out more people, generate more mainstream media coverage and deliver on predominantly quantitative outcomes. What was so different about this and the systems we were trying to change other than being branded green and clean?

I reflected upon the countless long funding strategies I had written promising big and fast movement growth, spanning national and international scales. Each challenged my intuitive sense of how social change really happens — namely that it is: 1. frontline-initiated and led; and 2. based upon long, hard-fought place-based community organizing efforts.

Instead of sudden, fast growth, the most powerful movements in history have been sustained by their own organizing work. Their resources reside in local communities, in the people who give countless volunteer hours, the venues offered by local churches, the food donated by local businesses, and the many small contributions of money from the wide and deep community-based networks of people who support them. This makes them immune from the speed, size and status quo agendas of big philanthropic funding, opening the door to more transformative system change.

3. Is starting small and slow the gateway to the most meaningful social change?

Throughout history, poets, songwriters, religious leaders, philosophers and even economists have spoken of the small as the gateway to a more just world. These include E. F. Schumacher’s seminal work “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered,” Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s famous protest song “From Little Things Big Things Grow,” and Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

These sayings and theories have reverberated through my years as an activist, yet something about them has also felt untrue in the context of the scale of climate damage we’re witnessing. In search of answers to this dilemma, I cast my mind to fields in which the scale of damage felt comparable, landing on the world of conflict and peace. 

Wondering what I might learn from peacebuilders to take back to climate justice organizing, I happened upon the work of John Paul Lederach, who has contributed to peace processes in Somalia, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Colombia and Nepal. Through decades of work, Lederach developed a framework for how large-scale conflict transformation arises, something he calls the “Theory of the Critical Yeast” or how “the few” influence “the many.” 

Lederach noticed that it was only when deep relationships were cultivated between a small number of community leaders in a conflict, that the potential for genuine transformation arose. Critically, these relationships had to be forged across difference. The first principle of the five that make up Lederach’s Critical Yeast Framework is:“A few strategically-connected people have greater potential for creating the social growth of an idea or process than large numbers of people who think alike.”

The relationships of trust held between them generated a ripple-out effect across their communities, helping to dissolve conflict over time. Finding these leaders and supporting them to build relationships and trust is not easy, especially when entrenched conflict and deep-seated difference exists between their communities. Lederach stresses that this transformative process cannot be rushed. You must start small and move slowly. Hence the second principle: “Mixed directly and quickly into the mass, yeast dies and does not work.”

I began to think about this in the context of climate work. While we aspire to build relationships across difference, too often the drive for size and speed means we end up constructing echo chambers, occupied by predominantly white, urban, middle-class, able-bodied folks. 

Too many of us expect different communities to generically “join us,” hoping our centralized campaigns will get picked up by a homogenous “many” when we haven’t done the long, hard, deep work to really understand the needs and motivations of diverse communities. Our hyper-focus on quantity of participation is often at the expense of investing in the quality of leadership needed to unlock that scale of participation. We build networks that encourage people to do the same thing everywhere, rather than co-creating spaces that uplift diversity.

Perhaps if we stopped setting ourselves enormous anxiety-producing quantitative goals and instead focused on building fewer but deeper relationships, across difference, we’d actually shift more hearts and minds.

4. Do we need more of a patchwork quilt approach?

Capitalism has built monocultures of the mind, molding us into modes of work from which we can never slow down — and monocultures of the Earth in the form of mining, agriculture and urbanization, which are devastating us and the planet. These capitalist monocultures are the drivers of climate change, so what is to stop them shaping the way that we respond to climate change? 

To build monocultures of solar panels and wind turbines — monocultures of mental urgency and crisis — means we have not even begun the journey towards climate justice because we are replicating the same systems that are driving climate injustice.

I wonder what would happen if we slowed down and deeply invested in relationships and solutions in our own communities. 

I call this the patchwork quilt approach — where we take our heads out of the sky and focus down on the ground with people, cultures, land and sea; where we generate real and meaningful wins together and forge deep relationships and community.

I acknowledge there is a real tension in this. What if it doesn’t work? What if it takes too long? But, I am not sure that a rushed monoculture approach to transforming the long-forged systems that brought us climate change is working, nor that a singular focus on emissions reduction won’t replicate the same exploitation of people and landscapes, if different approaches aren’t brought to bear. 

However, for this to work, we need serious connective tissue to hold it together — each of the individual patches in a patchwork quilt are beautiful, but their true beauty is only fully realized when they are sewn together carefully and thoughtfully into the quilt. 

We need each patch to unite around values of justice and equity, and to ensure that the parts add up to a whole that is commensurate with the scale of the crisis. We need communication and sharing of solutions between communities, and we need courageous local and national leadership to help guide the sewing of this unprecedented quilt. 

We need leaders who are genuinely connected with their communities, who will champion cultures, laws and policies that lessen the pressure of capitalism on us all, enabling more of us to participate meaningfully in our community patch. 

It’s challenging to imagine how all of this will pan out. It won’t be linear, and will be messy. But the Earth keeps telling us what the current system of unchecked growth has done to us all. Its feedback is etched into the rising seas and drought-stricken plains, the deadly heat and terrifying wildfires, the treacherous storms and dangerous floods. We need to do the hard work to create a new system now. And perhaps, for those of us organizing for climate justice, letting go of our own internalized attachment to speed and size is one of the most powerful steps we can take towards this end.


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