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Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active

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Carbon Drawdown vs Saving The Planet: Goals, Eyeballs and Money

carbon drawdown vs saving the planet effective climate action goal eyeballs money

How to bridge the environmental activism gap between ambition and outcome 

The carbon crisis has become too urgent to be distracted by means – it’s time to prioritise the ends.

The problem with saving the planet

We’ve written elsewhere about See Through’s problem with ‘saving the planet’, so won’t repeat our reservations here, other that to point out that:

  • The planet is absolutely fine and needs no saving
  • Most people who say ‘save the planet’ seem to actually mean ‘preserve human civilisation’
  • Conflating the two perfectly illustrates the human hubris that created the climate crisis

‘Mitigating the worst impacts of human-induced climate change on human civilisation’ is more of a mouthful than ‘Saving the Planet’, but at least it opens the possibility of a meaningful, measurable outcome.

There are many potential metrics for measuring success or failure when it comes to climate activism. This article explains why using proxies like money, eyeballs, social media likes, petition signatures or protest marchers can be distracting and ineffective, and suggests a more effective alternative. 

Let’s start by looking at the three things all activists need to stand a chance of being effective: 

  1. a Goal
  2. an Audience
  3. the Means to get 2 to achieve 1

Goal – raising awareness

There’s no point in competing in a race if you don’t know where the finish line is.

In the case of climate change, humanity may still be running backwards in pursuit of a sustainable future, but at least scientists know what the finish line would look like:

  • a stable climate in which our species can continue to thrive
  • a sustainable balance between our demand for resources and planet Earth’s supply

Yet many activists who’d agree with this definition don’t include anything so specific in their mission statements, slogans or petitions. 

This is just one of the problems with a goal as woolly as ‘Save The Planet’ – others include that the vaguer the goal, the easier it is for bad actors to find loopholes, and the more likely your supporters are to despair at the lack of progress.

To address a problem, you must first understand it.  A goal as indistinct as ‘saving the planet’ indicates not much thought has gone into understanding the nature of the problem, let alone identifying a solution.  

If politicians are too captured by vested business and media interests to lead, environmental activists need to move sufficient numbers of ordinary people to shout the same message loud enough to induce them to follow.

This requires informed knowledge, which is why so many climate activist organisation mission statements include objectives like ‘raising awareness’, ‘educating’ and ‘informing public discourse’.

The risk of setting a target of ‘awareness raising’, however, is that the ends become the means. 

Raising awareness on its own reduces no carbon. Indeed, all that online activity, outreach and protesting creates a lot of emissions that would not otherwise have been emitted.

Without a clear goal requiring defined metrics, success or failure is impossible to measure. There’s no way to audit and verify a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the means of ‘raising awareness’, and the end of an ill-defined goal.

All activist organisations start with good intentions, and a clear sense of purpose, but it’s easy to lose focus. If you measure success in terms of funds raised, crowdfunding donations, online petition signatories, social media engagement, protest march demonstrators etc., you can quickly lose sight of the finish line.

If your mission statement defines your desired output in vague terms like ‘awareness’ and ‘education’, it’s unsurprising that many environmental activist organisations struggle to maintain momentum and motivation.

When your stated objective is something as meaningless as ‘saving the planet’, disappointment and despair are virtually guaranteed.

The more specific the goal, the better your chances of success.

Audience – reaching eyeballs

A clear goal is a good start, but you also need players.

For activists, this means what our Silicon Valley Overlords, invested in ‘the attention economy’, measure in eyeballs, AKA ‘audience’, ‘reach’ or ‘influence’. 

Without an audience to be moved from inaction to action, all activism is guaranteed to fail.  

In this sense, climate activism is as much of a numbers game as selling fizzy drinks, or indeed climate denialism. If you’re shouting into the void, you may as well save your breath.

In this sense, those social media eyeball metrics do matter. More accurately, an audience is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for effective climate action.

Just like money, the trick is not to let the eyeballs become the sole metric of success. If you lose sight of the purpose of increasing your ‘reach’, you’re just playing our Silicon Valley Overlords’ game, and further enriching them.

Means – raising funds

Even activists with a super-specific goal, and access to eyeballs, need to work out how to unite the two. 

Usually, this means Money.

Fundraising is the first challenge most activists encounter, and it’s a problem that never goes away.

Permanent fundraising creates another more fundamental problem. Military strategists know it as ‘mission creep’, the rest of us as ‘losing the plot’.

All activist organisations with a bank account know how demanding and relentless a mistress fundraising can be. 

To work for a charity is to know how much time, energy, and bandwidth money takes up, in one form or another. 

Raising money, spending money, accounting for money, auditing the accounting for money… Money is a Hydra-headed monster that gobbles up headspace and office space. It leaves little of either left over to focus on whatever the charity was set up to actually do.

Like any other realm of activism, climate fundraising is a highly competitive business, and a zero-sum game. 

Your particular charity or NGO competes for limited pots of money with many other organisations with adjacent, or overlapping, mission statements.

This is further complicated by the fact that the purse holders dispensing the money themselves have adjacent, or overlapping mission statements. 

This means whatever money they disburse comes with a particular set of strings attached. 

Filling in the forms for such funders is a full-time, professional job because successful applicants must know these hot buttons, and adapt their applications to press them.

Apply for a dozen such pots of money from a dozen funders, and your simple mission statement suddenly becomes festooned with hundreds of strings each funder demands. 

Like Lemuel Gulliver restrained by myriad Lilliputian tethers, your mission can be rendered immobile. 

You’re so tied down by such a multitude of strings, there’s no room for manoeuvre. Your original purpose is lost. All you can do is whatever is necessary to survive, and to hope they keep feeding you.

When your means become your end, hope of effective activism evaporates.

Reducing Carbon

As the climate emergency accelerates, more people realise its urgency.

As their numbers grow, more join or set up climate activism charities, groups and NGOs.

The numbers of philanthropists and government bodies funding them also grows, but like any other realm of activism, demand always outstrips supply.

The more they multiply, the more precisely both activist groups and their funders need to define what separates them from ‘the competition’. Result: more complex goals, a more differentiated target audience, more strings attached to funding.

The overall impact of more environmental activists, and more funders supporting them, must surely be better than the alternative. It is clearly not a bad thing, but it also creates the dilemmas described in this article:

  • greater demand for specialisation among activist groups to differentiate themselves
  • a more persnickety lists of requirements from the funder, for the same reason
  • more competition for funding demanding more head and office space

In combination, these do not necessarily promote the goals shared by activists and funders.

See Through’s solution, for the moment, is to swerve these dilemmas by:

  • operating without a bank account, and to rely 100% on pro bono volunteers
  • using the same unit as climate scientists – metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent reduced or sequestered, or CO2e – instead of proxies like eyeballs or dollars

Many people thought this approach was naive and unfeasible, listing all the things that ‘couldn’t be done without money’.

See Through gradually ticked off this list of things as it:

Faced with this evidence, many are still assuring See Through that while it might be possible to operate at a pilot scale without money, this approach is bound to fail as soon as we try to operate ‘at scale’ – i.e. as a disruptive, data play which can reach sufficient numbers to measurably reduce kilotonnes, megatonnes, or gigatonnes of CO2e.

If they’re right, See Through will adapt its means, so long as they serve the end of measurable carbon reduction, but we’ll see.

This kind of clarity is just one of the many advantages of having a clearly defined Goal, with success or failure measured using the same unit as climate scientists.