We need to dive deeper, heal the hurts of colonialism and remake ourselves and our world using healthy collective decision-making processes that bring out the best in us, rather than the worst.
Assemblies can be the way to break the business as usual logjam that is paralysing effective action. For that, they need to be given the time and range of expert input to be able to arrive at their own understanding of the level of the emergency, and the transformations needed to address it.
We need to move from civil disobedience to political disobedience.
We need to move from captured corporate representative democracy (democracy in name only) to the real and deep democracy of deliberative peoples and citizens assemblies.
As flooding events like those seen in Germany, Belgium, China and London become ever more common, policymakers must not see people just as potential victims of the climate crisis.
Disillusioned with the representative democracy that had allowed the rise of national socialism, and inspired by the Ancient Greek polis, political theorist Hannah Arendt firmly believed in the power of direct democracy to enable true political freedom.
In case you’ve not come across citizens’ assemblies, they are gatherings of people (usually 100-150), selected to be a true snapshot of the place in question (say, a country or city) based on demographic criteria such as gender, age, income and education level.
If the Government cannot create a genuine Assembly process, do we need to find the resources for civil society to do so? Should this involve inviting the Government to become one stakeholder in a process that is designed to challenge us all to make a path ahead that can be an example for other countries to follow?
Like the White Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, I have been practising, doing my best to believe impossible things before breakfast. Could these experiments with slower, deliberative modes of democracy carry the currents of indignation, transform them into a turning aside from business as usual? Could there be political leaders who come around to the need for such a turning, in the face of the enormity of the climate crisis?
For a long time it has been assumed that public opinion is a barrier to climate action. But the climate assembly will likely confirm what the polls have been indicating for the past year: that people are now ready to move further and faster on climate action than the minimal effort shown by the government. If their advice is ignored or diluted beyond recognition, then maybe citizens’ assemblies are an imperfect mechanism for the scale of change needed to tackle the climate crisis. Only a green new deal for the UK will do.
This remark, made by a member of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) Citizens’ Assembly Working Group, is met by a spontaneous flurry of jazz hands from everyone in the small Kings College London meeting room. No, we’re not all frustrated musical theatre performers; waving ‘jazz hands’ are used in XR, and other activist groups, to express agreement during a group discussion. I can’t resist pointing out the irony of our reaction – we’re all agreeing we need to be less cult-like by raising our hands in unison and waving them about. Everyone laughs, but it strikes me that this points to a deeper challenge in our work.
As the UK Climate Assembly is about to launch in Birmingham on January 24th, on the other side of the Channel, the French Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat has got a head start. On January 10th, 150 French citizens met for the fourth time to look at how to address the climate crisis.
This climate emergency requires a courageous response from our political leaders. A citizens’ assembly – given sufficient time, resources and expert assistance – offers one means to solve the problem of taking difficult, long-term decisions in a political system governed by short-term rules.