Radical Ecological Democracy

Searching for alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable model of ‘development’


Caught in a rut?: How to stop resisting change and establish systemic “alternatives”?

Clem McCartney

I suppose that there are not many followers of Radical Ecological Democracy (RED) who do not get a certain satisfaction from deconstructing our current social systems and demonstrating that they are not fit for purpose in responding to the challenges we all face.  And some of us enjoy developing and fleshing out alternative visions that we believe would create a better world.  Ted Trainer did that recently with his article in RED on Eco-Anarchism and “The Simpler Way”.  And I have made the case, also in RED, for a Shared Society Approach.  It is exciting to be able to go to the next step and demonstrate these ideas in small pilot projects, which prefigure what could happen on a bigger scale.  Ted Trainer’s Eco-anarchism vision is already being implemented in communities around the world, showing how we can save the planet and at the same time experience worthwhile and fulfilling lives.  But if it is difficult to critique the present and propose an alternative future, it is an even bigger challenge to develop a plan for spreading our ideas, having them widely adopted and reaching a critical mass.  Instead there is often limited public awareness or interest, and if they are acknowledged at all, our ideas are likely to be dismissed and disparaged by mainstream orthodoxy.

History reminds us of many ideas that came to nothing (though probably there are many more that have disappeared without trace), but it also shows how religions, economic systems, governance systems, and cultural practices have emerged from small beginnings and become so established that, even when they are no longer fit for purpose, it is difficult for new approaches to squeeze past them.

Ideas for change are inevitably met with resistance and impediments, and could die without persistent support and solidarity.

Many new simpler ways of living, perhaps in a supportive self-sufficient community, are very attractive, idyllic even, for some of us, but many people react negatively to the idea, and are not ready to adopt such a way of life.  Why is this? 

Resistance to change

How can we transition to more sustainable lifestyles, or a fairer society, or a more caring community when the majority are resistant to change?  When presented with a functioning alternative, too many of us are repelled rather than attracted.  This reaction is justified by arguments such as:

  • It is too difficult
  • It is too inconvenient
  • It is too small to make a difference
  • It is too complicated
  • It requires too much self-discipline.

Why should I have to spend time and effort growing my own potatoes when it is so easy to drive down to the supermarket and buy them cheaply whenever I run short?  Why should I not seek to acquire and consume as much as possible, which gives me a sense of success and achievement and self-worth?  Why should I support people worse off than myself when I am not responsible for their circumstances?

Instinctive reactions

If we want significant change, we need to understand what is going on here and how our minds work.  We can make a rational case for our ideas on how to shift to more sustainable equitable and caring societies, but that comes up against resistance to change.  And the justifications for that resistance are only the surface.   They mask immediate and powerful feelings, which are often unstated even to us.  We often say that “Self interest” is behind the positions that people adopt, but it is actually their perceived self-interest that is often flawed and distorted by deeper attitudes and impulses.   Neuroscience tells us that our first reaction to a situation is an instinctive emotional feeling, and we then use our rational capacities to justify that initial feeling, as has been described by people like the psychologist and behavioural economist, Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”) and the social and moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”)  Over one hundred years earlier, Sigmund Freud had worked on these issues and the neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst, Mark Solms, has pointed out that Freud was himself a neurologist but was restricted by the absence of equipment to explore the brain’s functioning.  We can disagree about what these instinctive traits and reactions are, but we can recognise how powerful they are: distrust in the face of the unfamiliar and unknown; disgust in the face of abnormality and decay; aggression or withdrawal in the face of perceived hostility; shame and guilt in the face of criticism and disapproval; stubborn opposition in the face of uncertainty and the perception of losing control.  These are all reactions, which create distance.  Equally there are reactions, which create togetherness: attachment to people and situations, which are perceived to offer security; altruism and care for those in need; and fairness and willingness to share in situations of inequality. 

Aggressive pursuit of identity politics has often resulted in ethnic repression and violence all over the world.

Populist demagogues have always been aware of these tendencies and know how to manipulate.  Most cases of ethnic cleansing –for example, the Holocaust, Rwanda and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s – were preceded by hate speech in the media and political rhetoric, with repeated references to the other identity group as scum, vermin, cockroaches evoking images of dirty creatures lurking in dark corners.  As intended, this depersonalised that ethnic group and triggered the visceral sense of disgust and fear so that people who prided themselves on being respectable, peaceful and fair were easily caught up in the ethnic violence, condoning it or even joining in.

Avoidance or engagement

The power and deep-seated nature of both the distancing and togetherness impulses may well come from their evolutionary role in ensuring survival, but they can be maladaptive in the real situations we face day by day.  When we need to engage, they urge avoidance; when we need to co-operate, they encourage withdrawal and distance.  They are the sources of resistance we are up against when we want people and their attitudes and behaviour to change and address the challenges together.  While we all have in more or lesser degrees the tendency to engage and also to avoid, it seems that withdrawal and avoidance are the default options in much of modern life.  Why might this be?  Three other factors, often unstated, need to be taken into account.

The baggage from our life and experience

Our reactions and behaviours are often learned responses to past experiences and situations.  Little children and babies have the privilege and challenge of making sense of the world around them from scratch.  We can observe babies reacting to the stimuli that come to them even before they have the capacity to use language.  At that stage adults cannot give their explanations of what is happening or guide babies’ responses.  Babies are quick to recognise and express their immediate feelings and reactions and continue to review their reactions and whether they were the most beneficial.  When they develop language, they are ready to ask questions and look for answers.  They are very direct and unequivocal in their principles and sensitive to hypocrisy and double standards in others.  It is perhaps not surprising that young people have been at the front of many movements for change down through the centuries including today’s concerns about the environment, racism, colonialism, and injustice.  As they grow, patterns in their reactions develop.  They may have come to the conclusion that it is safer to react negatively, and those impulses will be easily roused.  Over time that becomes the baggage that we carry around with us as a burden.  On the other hand, we may have found that it is more liberating and relatively safe to be open to situations and react accordingly, and then the baggage holding us back is lighter.  Either way there is always the possibility that our preferred responses misjudge the situation, but we will be resistant to change.

We see this in the experience of trying to introduce innovation in rural development.  It seemed obvious that people would take up new ideas, which made their work easier, increased yields and therefore income.  But in fact, diffusion of innovation often came up against fear of the unknown, resistance, doubt, and scepticism.  It was easier to reject the new ideas and demonstrations of their efficacy, than to give up existing assumptions and experience.  On the other hand John Steinbeck’s novel “East Of Eden” gave a vivid example of adopting new technology without fully understanding the risk. Set in 1917, the farmer Adam Trask confidently decided that the new system of packing vegetables in ice could deliver his crop to distant markets, only for the cargo to be held up and rot away in the desert. 

Our sense of our place in our society and culture

Our different impulses co-exist within us, but the specific social context within which we are located will greatly influence the impulse to which we respond.  We can see that a ruthless criminal can also be a kind, caring, considerate person in his own family and friendship group.  In small circles, it is easy to respond to our impulse to bond to others because they are physically present.  In larger impersonal circles – the city, nation or globally – it is easier to ignore those inclusive collaborative impulses and connect to our more oppositional impulses.  But there is more to it than that.  The social context gives messages, which affect one’s sense of oneself.  Public policy, advertising, business practices, the media, including in recent times social media, all contribute to public discourse.  If the dominant discourse and our personal experience tell us that people are valued, respected, taken into consideration, then we are more likely to be self-confident, secure, and have a strong sense of our place in society.  We are then more likely to respond to our impulses to take responsibility as active, empowered, self-actualizing people, and to contribute to strengthening those aspects of the society that need support, creating a virtuous self-perpetuating cycle.  On the other hand, if public discourse tells us that success in material terms is more important than people or the planet, and that people are treated as passive objects with limited capacities who need to be managed and rewarded for conforming, then we are likely to have low self-esteem, and act in response to our more defensive impulses, with apathy and indifference to the challenges we face and resistance to change, or resentment and opposition to those who are different and unfamiliar.  We are also likely to be uncertain and look to others for guidance, particularly those who reinforce and validate our doubts and fears.  Therefore a vicious circle emerges as the society and culture bring out the more defensive and oppositional aspects of people’s nature, which in turn reinforces those aspects of the culture and society.

There is sometimes surprise that those who are most disadvantaged and marginalized are often the most hostile to other marginalized groups.  Most people are sensitive to inequality and unfairness in the system, particularly when they are affected personally.  But that does not mean that they will support political platforms that are designed to make society more equal and from which they should benefit: progressive taxation, free access to health care at the point of delivery; social protection, etc.  There is no expectation that the proposals will bring them any tangible benefit and they fear that others, whom they see as less worthy of help, will benefit more.  So rather than working together across racial and ethnic divides to ensure that they all benefit they will oppose such measures, which in itself confirms their marginalised status.

Cognitive dissonance

Back in the 1950s, doomsday cults predicting the end of the world seemed more common, but they offer a cautionary tale for today.  Their members seemed able to maintain their beliefs even when the world did not end on the day predicted.  Social psychologists used the idea of cognitive dissonance to explain this persistence of a belief in the face of proof that it was not true; when people feel they are required to do something or believe something which goes against their existing opinions, relationships, culture, actions, feelings, ideas, beliefs, values, and things in the environment, they feel stress and need to find ways to reconcile the new information with their existing assumptions and beliefs, without, as far as possible, rejecting their old beliefs.

The refugee crisis has highlighted the inequities built into the international neoliberal order, upending people’s lives, and then dumping them on hostile shores.

The picture of little refugee Aylan Kurdi lying dead on the beach on the island of Kos in 2015 is still in our memories.  It touched the natural caring instinct, which was reinforced by words like “heart breaking” being used in the universal coverage of his death around the world.  The popular press which, particularly in affluent countries,, has connected to their readers’ sense that migration is a threat, now connected to their readers sympathy for the vulnerable, as they know such stories will resonate with the instincts of their readers.  Thousands of migrants have died in this way in the years before and in the years since.  It was thought the image might change attitude to migration, but in the event, nothing has changed. 

The public’s compassion for a dead child was incompatible with their distaste for foreigners and fear of losing control and ultimately that fear was more powerful.   It was encouraged and given respectability by politicians and the media, who talked about the “hordes” of immigrants who would destroy the standard of living in the destination countries, forgetting that they were proportionately a small number in comparison with the existing population, and ignoring their potential contribution to their new community.   A recurring theme in public discourse was to divert attention away from the vulnerable by focusing on people who could be held responsible and condemned: the possible presence of criminals, terrorists and freeloaders among the migrants; the people who were held to be responsible for the migration; other countries that rejected the migrants; and the groups that offered to provide illegal means to get to the desired country.  In these ways the cognitive dissonance was assuaged.  It also avoided having to considering that the migrants are dying because of the absence of an adequate humane system for legal migration.

So where do we start, especially if the human capacity to reason is usually employed to avoid challenges to existing thinking?

Implications for Agents for Social Change

Recognize limits of pressure

Most of these dynamics within individual and social systems are not unfamiliar.  Nevertheless, it seems that knowing this does not stop us trying to persuade or pressurise, reward, or punish other people to change their minds and their behaviour more in line with what we think is right or good for them.  There is no point in trying to compete in this way with the current drivers of public discourse: Gramsci’s cultural hegemony.  At this stage enormous resources of time, money and skill are put into tapping into visceral human impulses and maintaining the current “received wisdom” supported by celebrities and demagogues with huge numbers of followers, and the casual acceptance of the status quo in the media.  The examples of a different way barely get a look-in and most people are not even aware that they exist.

The messages of “Simple Living” or “Shared Societies”, eco-anarchism, or eco-socialism are marginal, and dominant discourse presents them in ways, which evoke those impulses within ourselves, which want to reject them.  It is difficult to overcome the “convenient” stereotypes that have meant that anarchism and socialism are dismissed as naïve and irrelevant, but harmful, aberrations.  Anarchism is characterized as a nihilist attempt to destroy the “evil” state because some anarchists advocated such strategies, forgetting that the main thrust of anarchism is that imposed authority stunts the growth and wellbeing of the individual and seeks voluntary non-coercive relationships.  Socialism is characterized as the attempt to destroy the “evil” economic system that produces wealth and prosperity and replace it with a totalitarian system, because that happened in the past, but such a characterization ignores that the main thrust of socialism is that the current economic system creates great inequality and unsustainable waste and consumption and needs to be replaced by more egalitarian systems which ensure that wealth is shared and economic activity serves the needs of the people. 

Capitalism creates a potent desire for unnecessary objects ultimately leading to waste, and pressure on resources.

Pay attention to feelings and emotions

Even if we could compete with these dominant influences, that is not an appropriate or sustainable approach because it does not take account of the impulses that drive behaviour and replicates the objectification of the general population and denial of their capacity to share responsibility.

Even if the other person offers some compliance, it requires increasing effort to maintain the change.  In 1964, when neuroscience was still in its infancy in offering insights into what goes on in our heads, Alan Keith-Lucas, the social work educator, offered a vivid image to a conference of agricultural field agents when he likened the human predicament to a trolley on a set of rails.  In his own words:

This trolley has an engine that tends to move it in the direction that it both needs and wants to go – the very same direction that we, too, would want it to go.  Some trolleys do not move.  They overcome minor obstacles, and sometimes, big ones, too.  But some are held by a spring pushing in the other direction – a spring of fear, of anger, of shame, of hopelessness and despair.

Now our natural reaction … is to give it a push.  Perhaps we do move it a little.  But if it really has a spring, this movement is at the cost of a tightening of the coils.  If we relax our pressure … the spring will recoil.

The sensible thing, of course, is to get at the spring and uncoil it.  That is why it is usually true that people need a great deal more help with their negative feelings than with their positive ones.

Populist demagogues do connect to our negative impulses, and offer to take action in line with them, perhaps because they share them.  In this way, they reinforce them and validate them rather than question them.

Raise questions and change the meta-discourse

We can of course make the case for more sustainable alternatives that support the wellbeing of all, using all the platforms that exist for giving our messages the widest reach, but we must recognise that we are going against the tide of popular sentiment and public discourse.  We must also recognise that it is not enough to give a clear message if those receiving that message are not receptive to it and it is important to increase receptivity.

Indeed we may have more success in changing the nature of discourse and receptivity to fresh thinking.  We need to highlight and challenge many of the assumptions, often subliminal, prevalent in popular discourse and the ideas that are never questioned.  We can promote alternative assumptions which will change the nature of public discourse: the idea that people can be trusted to make decisions that affect them provided that they have full disclosure of information available; that choices are relative and there is seldom only one possible way forward – things are not black or white; that all economic and social systems have some positive aspects but, equally, other tendencies which need to be guarded against; that there is no such thing as a truly libertarian system – all systems include some regulatory mechanisms to limit undesirable negative consequences; continued economic growth is not sustainable and is unnecessary for the generation of wealth; co-operation for the common good requires some limits on the sovereignty of individual states and, by some pooling of sovereignty, international agreements can be made to the mutual benefit of all and of the planet.  By continually restating simple points like these and challenging existing shibboleths, we can begin to shift public debate and stimulate closer analysis of statements that have in the past been taken for granted.

Ensure that the society nurtures the potential of everyone

As Ted Trainer acknowledges in his recent RED articles, we need “willing initiatives on the part of autonomous citizens who are strongly committed to the new ideas and values.” And so “This revolution cannot proceed unless there is radical change in world view, ideas, values and dispositions”.  These changes require the involvement not only of institutions but also individuals.   Institutions are important because they have the capacity to make changes, which have the largest impact.  Attitudinal and behavioural change at the individual level is also important for many of the challenges we face, but more than that, individual engagement or avoidance influences the behaviour of institutions and their attitudes feed into the public discourse.  It is noteworthy at the moment that some private sector businesses are in the forefront of efforts to ensure environmental sustainability.  For some this may only be a way of “green-washing” their image but that in itself is significant.  In thinking of consumer reaction, it shows that they are focused on those consumers who are concerned about social and environmental impacts and will take that into account in deciding to support that company.  The rest of the potential customers may not care one way or the other about the company’s green credentials and therefore their views on these matters do not need to be factored into the company’s policy choices in this area.  However the result is that all its customers are drawn into more socially and environmentally responsible practices because of the influence of those most concerned.

Where do these active citizens come from?  It has been noted already that when people feel valued and respected, we are more likely to be self-confident, secure, and have a strong sense of our place in society.  As a result, we are more likely to act on our impulses to take responsibility for our society, and care for the planet and those who are disadvantaged.  Can we achieve such a society?

A “Shared Society” is predicated upon a sustainable planet that ensures everybody’s basic needs.

The Shared Societies Concept, which I have written about in Radical Ecological Democracy in the past, fits very well with Eco-anarchism’s recognition that “the new communities cannot work satisfactorily unless there are strong senses of autonomy, empowerment, responsibility, enjoyment, willingness and pride, i.e., unless they are run by positive and conscientious citizens.”  At their core, Shared Societies identify what is required to meet the needs of each individual, from health, food, and shelter, to recognition, respect, and dignity – and, in making respect and dignity a cornerstone of the concept, the individual cannot be treated as a passive recipient of services, but such a cornerstone potentiates their capacity for playing a full and responsible role in addressing the challenges that the society faces.  A truly Shared Society not only ensures that the needs of all those living there are met, but, in doing so, it releases our capacity to build and maintain the society as a sharing, enabling, and sustainable one.

Provoke critical thinking and understanding of rhetoric

In many parts of the world today, we live in a paradoxical situation where the argument for libertarian freedom of thought and action is pervasive but yet many people use their liberty to tie themselves to particular movements and even cults and follow fake news and conspiracy theories.  It is not as paradoxical as one might think when we remember that we are driven by basic urges and instinctual responses to circumstances, and that we feel passive and controlled by the societies in which we live.  To break out of that feeling of helplessness, we use our rational capacities to create a narrative that accounts for that feeling and to search for influencers, conspiracy theorists, and demagogues who can construct that narrative for us.  The paradox is that in doing so we have again suspended our freedom to think for ourselves. 

Therefore it is important to break that cycle by stimulating our critical faculties, to challenge our own ideas and those we agree with as well as those we disagree with.  In the past, rhetoric was an essential subject of education, which helped us to examine the content of arguments and also the rhetorical tricks that hid the weaknesses in the argument and made it more plausible.  Ideally it would be included in the school curriculum for all young people.  But failing that, if we want to influence public discourse to be more grounded in reality and not distorted by feelings and prejudice, then it is important to ask critical questions until they become automatic:  where is this narrative coming from?  What interest would the source have in making this argument?  Why does it resonate?  What underlying emotional reactions does it reinforce in the hearer?  Is the argument open to critical discussion or are criticisms brushed away?  These are only some of the ways in which ideas and arguments can be tested. 

Leaders and influential opinion shapers can encourage critical thinking through their public presentations and use of social media by raising questions and inviting others to do so.  They can also uphold standards in public debate, including opposition to hate speech, and an evidence-based approach, and reaffirm shared human values such as integrity, honesty, and respect for others.

Practice of agency and voice

Essential to wider participation in public discourse and engagement which leads to greater respect for all is the feeling that we have agency and voice.  Many people do not have that sense, believing that they must defer to others, and that their own capacity for participation is limited.  As already noted, living in a Shared Society in itself gives greater confidence in one’s own capacity to play an active role and, more generally, we need to encourage the development of more opportunities for people to be engaged and to demonstrate that the general public have the capacity to play a full and active role in public affairs if they have access to the relevant information.  This once happened naturally in local communities but has, to a degree, been lost.  New ways have been developed to replace the old opportunities through initiatives such as rediscovering town hall meetings, using citizens’ assemblies to recommend future policies, supporting community action and community development, and managing social media in ways which open up the range of views rather than closing down dissent, as happens on too many platforms.

Recognise that learning is relational

Given that we tend, unconsciously, to hold on to existing assumptions and ways of behaving, not least because they are often rooted in our instinctive responses to situations, it is difficult to look at them with fresh eyes without some interaction with others.  Experience from the effective diffusion of innovation in rural development shows that it works best in the context of on-going relationships and public discourse within the community over time, acknowledging and thinking through the risks.  Face-to-face interaction is the most effective way to introduce new ways of thinking, raise awareness, and stimulate fresh approaches, but there is a limit to how many people can be reached in this way.

Meaningful face to face dialogues are crucial for instituting change.

Reference has already been made to citizens’ assemblies and town hall meetings as formats which provide opportunities for meaningful discussion.  Others include community dialogues and deep canvassing.  These systems are complex to roll out widely across the community and require financial resources and experienced facilitators.  Public bodies can provide resources and encourage civil society to also play a full part in ensuring that meaningful face-to-face discussions take place. 

Offer a sense of purpose 

While this article has drawn attention to the visceral impulses, which encourage defensiveness and hostility, another impulse is to be relevant and do something worthwhile.  If we have a sense of purpose we can be enthused and even excited.  We respond to a vision or narrative that shows, or at least provides a glimpse, of what we can achieve and how that will enrich our lives, and enhance our wellbeing.  It can even be an effective motivator to acknowledge the risks and costs in getting there because the prize is worth it.  We can see this in the speech of Martin Luther King on 5 December 1955, the day that Rosa Parks was found guilty of violating segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, USA, and the day that the Montgomery bus boycott began.  In making the case for non-violent protest as the main strategy he said:

“Now let us go out to stick together and stay with this thing until the end.  Now it means sacrificing, yes, it means sacrificing at points. But there are some things that we’ve got to learn to sacrifice for. And we’ve got to come to the point that we are determined not to accept a lot of things that we have been accepting in the past.”

Of course, in later speeches King would also outline the goals, which made the effort worthwhile, as in his “I have a Dream” speech.  He gained the community’s support for the boycott by presenting it as a shared project in which everyone was involved together for the common good.  Now we do face social, governance, security and environmental challenges, which need the involvement of the global community, and concerned citizens today can also offer a sense of purpose which helps to create the conditions which will encourage that involvement. 

Through these approaches we may not – yet – change “world view, ideas, values and dispositions” but we have created the conditions in which wider society will be receptive to the idea that such change can happen if they get involved.  We can then move on to the next stage of reaching a critical mass for building the sustainable future that works for all.  It is a long road, but the goal is clear; we can recognize the direction of travel, and the first steps can be taken by each of us in our own relationships to the world and the wider society around us.


Clem McCartney has been an independent research consultant on conflict and community issues for the last 40 years, working in many parts of the world with organizations such as Conciliation Resources, Berghof Foundation and the World Leadership Alliance/Club de Madrid.

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