Theory of Change - Blog 16

Joe Salmon, 28 October 2023, Tags:



Warning: This one is heavy on philosophy, and a lot of it is rooted in my own very limited understanding and misremembered facts and ideas I probably learned wrong to start with anyhow back at uni in 2007.Plus I’ve tried to do some diagrams, but I absolutely despise having to use at work to do this for Entity Relationship Diagrams (ERDs), so opted to use which is just much more fun to use. Apologies in advance for how crap they look and half baked my analysis is.


I’ve updated my Public To Do, also at the last green group meeting we decided to have some kind of collective group action tracker, which I’ll need to start feeding into. This should help us better coordinate as a group and have more of an impact. Next week will mainly be a process of copying across my actions onto there.


Today I’ll attend the demonstration in B’mouth square against the bombing of Gaza, but I’m going to confess that I don’t really like demonstrations. When I was in my 20s I did lots more traditional activism where you go marching about somewhere chanting slogans. This is how I campaigned against the Iraq war, climate change etc. These campaigns all failed. As such I’m a little cynical as to how effective they are in bringing about change. That said, with atrocities being carried out so frequently in Gaza and the situation on the brink of genocide I can’t just do nothing.


If it isn’t already apparent from Twitter, my position is unashamedly pro-peace rather than pro-Palestine or pro-Israel. I find people who are willing to position themselves as pro one side or the other in such an entrenched, painful and difficult conflict are almost certainly part of the problem. I am disappointed at those on the Left who have found it hard to condemn the actions of Hamas, and even attempted to justify them, I think my feelings on the topic are best summed up here by Yuval Noah Harari


I feel similar disappointment at our political classes inability to make a concerted push for a peaceful resolution and a ceasefire. The disproportionate response of the IDF is the stuff of nightmares, and the diary of someone in Gaza at the moment is a must read.


The climate these debates and discussions take place in is dreadful. There are some basic facts that must be acknowledged and the issues they raise addressed for a peaceful solutions. However many people are only able to acknowledge the facts that suit their world view, materially benefit them and leave their ‘principles’ unchallenged.


  • Israel is an apartheid state

This isn’t a debatable fact if you define an apartheid state as one where people have different legal rights because of their ethnicity. This was the case in apartheid South Africa, and is the case in apartheid Israel. This is set out much more clearly and eloquently than I can here


  • Hamas is a terrorist organisation

While it is understandable that the BBC would not call Hamas a terrorist organisation (explained here it is not so easy to understand why anybody else would not feel comfortable doing so. However there are people in positions of political power Turkey’s Erdogan for example


who shy away from confronting the ultimate nature of this group. For any peace to stand a chance Hamas must be dismantled and disarmed. To believe otherwise is sheer lunacy. Again I would defer to Yuval Noah Harari and his analysis days after the horrific terrorist attack to better voice my feelings here

  • Israel has illegally occupied territory

Again, this isn’t something where there is much room for interpretation. The facts are quite stark.


  • The Palestinian people expelled from their homes, and their families in most cases have a legal right to return under international law

Again just like the legality of the occupation, the right to return for displaced people and their families is well established.


Simply acknowledging these facts seems impossible for some people. They are all easy to grasp and as readily verifiable as any political facts can be in the internet disinformation world. Everyone on twitter because a munitions, audio and combat expert the moment the horrific bombing of the hospital in Gaza took place. The idea we’re going to be able to know the truth of something so contentious while the conflict is ongoing is a fantasy.


Anyhow that’s my current position. I’m sure there are things I’m wrong about, I’m sure if I knew more about the topic I’d have more nuanced understandings, and fill the above statements with more and more caveats and corrects. That said I am certain that a ceasefire is the right thing to happen next. Anybody with a basic grasp of history can see the response from Israel is the response most sought by Hamas and its backers. It is not in the interest of anybody but the political elites in the region and their international benefactors.


Thinking about the usefulness of demos and marches brought me round to what my own theory of change is. Since becoming a councillor after years of working to do so alongside my wife Kate (we met in the Green Party back in 2014, and have been campaigning together since then) I am starting to feel my duties as a councillor are about as impactful as I was marching against the Iraq war. A glance at my ‘Public To Do’, and the progress I’ve made on things like 20mph limits on our residential streets, some school crossings, better licensing of alcohol, sensible planning decisions shows how absolutely glacial and low impact the change I can make as a councillor is. I am forever being told “Thats not something you / the council can do because of a stupid law from 1972, some  idiotic guidance from national government or a downright awful decision from the previous councillors”. We all want 20mph limits for our streets, the electorate, the councillors, the experts, basically everyone bar a few idiots who have been consistently wrong about everything most of their lives. Why on earth can’t we get this done.


Whenever I puzzle over this problem of how to really impact change I’m reminded of a question I was asked by a fantastic ex-Labour activist who joined our movement up in Leeds, “what’s your theory of change?” It wasn’t a concept I’d come across before and it’s something that I’ve thought of a lot ever since I was first asked. As a starting point I always think about my ontological beliefs, those that underpin the Green Party and how they are different from those underpinning the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. 


You can definitely skip this bit, it is very thinking out loud naval gazing on my part.


I’d say one thing the ontology of all groups share in common is that they have a materialist / physicalist grounding in theory, although arguably the Conservatives, and to a lesser degree each of the traditional parties ultimately has a supernatural understanding of the world based on Christian supernatural beliefs. After the assumption that all that exists in reality is the physical universe as defined by modern science (physics, biology, chemistry etc) they also share in common the assumption that reality is populated by conscious entities, although our understanding of how consciousness occurs is limited at best.


Beyond this each organisation has a pre-analytic vision which includes a definition of key theoretical concepts like justice, society, civilisation etc. It’s here that we see the divisions begin to emerge more clearly, even between the traditional parties. For example each of the groups has different ideas as to how much ‘moral value’ non-human consciousness has, with the Greens most open to the idea that animal life has value. Labour and the Lib Dims certainly pay lip service to the idea, although neither look to “To eliminate the wholesale exploitation of other species”, which is the long term goal of the Green Party (and one of the reasons I’m a Green rather than a member of the Liberal Democrats or Labour Party). The Tories also pay lip service to the ideas, but their actions in power are so lacking so as to render these claims meaningless in my book


Here we see how much more heavily the ontology of the traditional parties is rooted in Christian supernatural beliefs, with each assuming humans (and human systems) are separate from the natural world. This is apparent in the idea that infinite growth of the economy, specifically the consumption of resources and creation of waste is something that can be sustained forever, presumably because reality was designed that way. Each of the 3 traditional parties again pays lip service to the idea of the economy being dependent on the earth's ecological system, but very much have a vision of there being something called ‘the economy’ which is separate from, and not a subsystem of the ecology of the planet. This is most apparent in the way Labour and the Conservatives have continued to implement policies which encourage unbridled consumption of the value produced by the ecosystem, as well as those which also externalise many problems onto the ecosystem without any genuine mitigation (C02 and other forms of pollution for example).


They also subscribe very heavily to the idea of historical progress. To each of them there is an inexorable march towards a greater future, although this can only be appreciated at scale, with occasional stumblings sometimes setting back ‘progress’ hundreds of years such as the black death. This is one of the areas where the Christian supernatural grounding of the parties ontologies apparent, and almost demands we conclude that while there may not be some ‘designer’ god in existence, there is some supernatural or at least superhuman force for justice gently moving creation every further forward and higher. The Earth, by their reckoning will always be a better place if you skip forward 1000 years or so, and always be a worse place if you skip backwards instead.


This is obviously nothing more than a comforting fiction. Any hard analysis of human wellbeing and happiness finds it hard to conclude there has been a continuous march of progress, especially when you take pre-industrial and pre-agricultural periods of our existence into consideration. I can’t make the case any better than Yuval Noah Harari does in his masterwork Sapiens which is frankly a must read for any human in existence today. If you’ve not read it, I’d go get a copy now.


Aside from this our observation of the known universe shows this idea to be clearly false. Any rational consideration of how alone we are in the universe despite our late arrival in its 13 billion year history tends to suggest that life, even intelligent life such as human life arises often, but does not last for more than a few thousand years at most. If every Earth-like planet contained species with similar intelligence and technology to modern humans after a 5 billion years or so, and they continued to progress at the rate we have for the last 1000 years we’d find the cosmos awash with radio signals and artefacts. If we could simply continue with our current level of technology, consumption and externalisation of pollution for a million years we could certainly settle on Mars, and build structures on every Earth-like moon orbiting Jupiter in the system that would broadcast our existence far and wide to the galaxy. Imagine if a similar civilization to ours had arisen on just one planet in our galaxy, but reached the stage of life we are at now 2 billion years earlier. They would have accomplished so much even if they were stuck with the technology we have today for some reason. How many probes could we have sent out? How many radio broadcasts? How many self replicating vehicles could we have landed on comets to explore the galaxy. 


Instead it seems clear some ‘filter’ event almost certainly wipes out intelligent life not long after it rises to power. That life makes its environment uninhabitable faster than it learns to manage its environment seems most likely to me as the explanation for our interstellar loneliness.


That cold hard look at our genuine cosmic position, and implications it has in setting out the scale of the challenge we face with climate change is what is lacking in the philosophy of all the main parties. Indeed only this week some idiot tweeted this when defending one of the rubbish traditional parties on climate change.


Career politicians in the Labour Party, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have all been in positions of significant power since climate science made it abundantly clear that to avoid action risked not just the suffering of billions but the very end of all intelligent life. However they constantly find excuses for their inaction even when opportunity presents itself. Indeed every member of a political party alive today when we face environmental disasters on a scale and frequency never experienced since the dawn of human civilisation would say they look back on their parties times in power positively and think they did everything they could do.


The idea one of the important discussions required for the environmental movement to succeed is one about HS2 is ludicrous. The government simply cannot deliver large scale projects effectively by design. It is a machine set up to enrich the rich while providing the absolute bare minimum of public services, regardless of the intent of the politicians who are meant to be in charge. 


This level of response just isn’t sufficient. No half measures will suffice. If you are looking to jump a great deep chasm, it matters very little if you fall short only by a few inches rather than many feet, you fall the same depth and have the same fate. If you cannot provide a valid way forward, a way to clear the chasm your plan is pointless. Someone labouring night and day on a scheme that they know even if it succeeds will fall short of the target is insane. None of the existing parties even recognise the scale of the problem we face, let alone have plans to tackle such a mammoth challenge.


So that leaves us with my lovely little volunteer run, underfunded and burnt out environmental movement, and ti’s political wing the Green Party. Taking their differing Ontology, one that is devoid of any belief in superhuman systems or trends towards justice, what are we left with and what kind of theory of change can we develop?


Okay, ’ve slept in this morning and the kids are bouncing about. I’ll pick this thread up next week, and will be focusing on promoting initial meeting on neighbourhood plan.


As ever any and all feedback is very welcome

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