#47 Power to the people
A very great many newsletters like this one will be written — or have been written — these days. The Shell case, tipping points, climate. We’re all in the same bubble. We had a win! Exxon, the pandemic, culture. As a social media philosopher entrepreneur said astutely: The time to write just these words is right now. So let’s.
This week 17,000 Dutch citizens assembled and represented by Milieu Defensie won a landmark case against the oil-and-human-rights-abuses behemoth Shell. The ruling judge ordered Shell to do more to reduce their part in the climate catastrophe, even if they haven’t been put on the hook by the government. A company can be expected to take responsibility beyond the bare minimum—even a company with an impressive track record of not giving a shit.
The win comes just days after activist investors almost forced Shell to up their climate game.
So instead of not giving a shit, now Shell will have to start doing what it does best after pumping fossil fuels: stalling, blocking, ignoring, delaying, and potentially murdering some protestors. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of the yellow-and-red company. Their global outlook, their capacity to act, their technical and political skill. If only they put it to use for something good.
So the people won. By extension, the government didn’t win. There is a lot to say for the role of governments — especially democratic bureaucracies — to set the boundaries for business. Five years ago, in a similar lawsuit, different citizens forced the Dutch government to up their climate game as well. The pattern: if you have power and influence, you should use it to take climate action. Of course, our government didn’t really up anything after being ruled to do so. Hence the Shell case.
On the morning of the Shell verdict, the social tipping point coalition made it to the front page of my newspaper. Their manifesto (signed by many smart people) calls for the government to catalyze citizen actions to achieve the much-needed transformations. NGOs, grassroots organizations, scientists, and artists are an overlooked source of energy, creativity, and action, in their words. I couldn’t agree more. I hope they have the budget for a lawsuit to force the government to adopt their hoped-for social tipping point strategy.
The NGO we started early last year, Stichting 2030, operates on the same principles. We believe that in a typical community, most if not all of the ideas, initiatives, knowledge, and expertise are available that we need for the great challenges of our time. Our task is to bring this together, strengthen what works, and support new initiatives. Art and organized culture play a central role in this process. After some 16 months of hard work and hundreds of meetings, I’m more convinced of people’s ability to transform the world than ever. The city of Leiden, which is our playground, by our estimate, has 10,000 positive initiatives. That’s an unstoppable force for good.
So, let the people win! Or...
We spend a lot of time exploring and explaining the role of citizen initiatives in shaping the future. Shouldn’t the government do most of the things citizens do, given citizens already vote and pay taxes? Shouldn’t businesses play a larger role, given their clout? And what role do science and technology play in the great transitions of our time? What is the role the people should play?
With our survey NL post-C, we had the opportunity to dive deep into a significant number of opinions on these questions — all in all, some 34,000. When it comes to who’s at play in the powerful challenges of our time, it’s a matter of “all of the above.” Government, business, innovation, and ‘we the people’ all have their part, a unique and complementary role:
The policies, laws, and choices of government and private institutions determine the direction for a solution.
The practical decisions and actions of the business community shape the responses to a problem.
The new ideas, innovations, and research from start-ups, universities, and other innovators provide new solutions.
The choices and actions, and activism of everyday people determine the direction of solutions around an issue.
Every individual or every organization has a conscious or unconscious preference for one of the roles. This preference can differ per challenge. I.e., some of us like to set long-term strategies. Others prefer direct action. We can do virtually everything if the four perspectives are in balance and reinforce each other. Innovators come up with solutions that can strengthen a business. People force the government to make choices. The government creates frameworks for the innovators to be successful.
I agree with the social tipping point coalition that in this mix, the power of the people is often overlooked. People shouldn’t have to go to court to get their way.
(We’re working towards a showcase/festival in September, after which I’ll try to reflect on the lessons learned in Leiden about bottom-up organizing for social change.)
Interestingly, there are some artists and cultural organizers among the signees of the social tipping point manifesto. They’re so perfectly placed among the scientists, activists, and other leaders that it’s surprising there aren’t more of them on the list. It seems like a better place to be than on the gazillionth petition to ask for the reopening of culture.
So, the people. The people won this week. I read up on 1848 thanks to Kim Stanley Robison and liked Wikipedia’s summary (which has since been edited: I’m not the only one exploring ancient revolutions): “Result: Little political change, Significant social and cultural change.”
Shell may be stalling, governments inactive, but the people change, and with them, everything.
Thanks for reading, thanks for replying, until next week!