Episode #115 Activism by Design with David Johnson of the Stanford Law School
How can we use the leading edge of design thinking to create climate activism that really works? Dave Johnson is a lawyer, teacher, writer and design thinker who is bringing his breadth of understanding to bear on the climate and ecological emergency.
Dave began his career as a trial lawyer in the courtrooms of Miami and after a decade, went to Stanford to study design, tech and environmental law. He has worked for several Silicon Valley companies, with an increasing focus on teaching, first at Stanford Law School and then the Hasso Plattner Institute for Design at Stanford (a/k/a the d.school). His most recent articles are Design for Legal Systems, to be published by the Singapore Academy of Law, Mar/Apr 2021, and Designing Online Mediation: Does “Just Add Tech” Undermine Mediation’s Ownmost Aim?, published in 2019 by FGV Direito, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Dave is currently working on a book entitled: Climate Activism by Design, bringing design principles to bear on citizen activists responding to corporate and governmental inaction on this immediate, existential crisis facing all of humanity.
In this episode, we discuss the foundations of his book – how a trial lawyer shifted to design principles and thence to the design concepts behind climate activism: what it is and how to frame it such that we can find the best possible modes of action as the emergency becomes ever greater.
Manda: My guest for this week, Dave Johnson began his career as a trial lawyer in the courtrooms of Miami. After a decade, he returned to Stanford to study, design and tech and environmental law. He has worked for a number of very well-known Silicon Valley companies, including Apple and Google. But he has an increased focus now on teaching first at the Stanford Law School and then at the House of Plattner Institute for Design, also known as the D School. But it’s as a writer that I really wanted to connect with him, because Dave’s writing a book called Climate Activism by Design. And if that isn’t right up the street of this podcast, then I don’t know what is. So here we go, to explore how to design the best climate activism the world could ever have. People of the podcast, please welcome Dave Johnson.
Manda: So Dave Johnson, all the way from Stanford Law School. Thank you so much for skipping into your middle of the week morning to come and talk to us.
Dave: Thank you for having me. I’m really glad to be able to speak to Europe and Scotland specifically.
Manda: Yes. So you’re writing a book called Climate Activism by Design, which sounds as if it’s really exactly the kind of thing that this podcast is looking at. How do we design our activism in the most efficient way so that we can create the change that we need in the timescales available to us. And yet you’re also teaching at the Stanford Law School. So how does a lawyer, a trained lawyer and you have been at the bar as far as I can tell, the American equivalent. How do you end up writing a climate action book, when over here most of our climate activists are on the line to being arrested quite quickly when the government changes the law?
Dave: Mm-hmm. I might find myself arrested quite quickly, too. Long story short, I practised law for 30 some years. The first ten years was in Miami, Florida, and then I came to Stanford to do a second degree, actually. And I fell into the space. The space I was interested in was environmental law, domestic and international. And I started to migrate towards international and climate change. And I mean, this is back in the middle nineties and finished the degree did a thesis on modelling policy. I can come back to that later, but that’s the big picture; modelling policy designed for environmental treaties. And I left that behind, went back to work, because that’s what you have to do after you’ve been in school for a while, you have to go back to work. Had a nice run in Silicon Valley. I’m happy with that. And the opportunity to teach part time, teach at the law school in the area of negotiation, came up. And so I took that on in 2007-2008; been teaching there every year since. But again, just part time while I’m working. And then what’s more interesting is, about five years ago, I became introduced to a few people at the what we call the D-school, the design school at Stanford, which is technically the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.
Dave: And I like to say that because Hasso Plattner, one of the founders of SAP, one of our local good guy billionaires, is funding the project and we really appreciate that. So kudos to Hasso. And I started to learn what they were doing over at the D-school, which is not just researching and writing about design and design thinking specifically, but also teaching students and also teaching faculty from around the world. With one of the primary missions to disseminate the DNA, for lack of a better phrase, of design-thinking; how to teach it and how to apply it to a whole variety of fields. And the easiest place for me to start was going to be design and negotiation. So I spun up a course with some help, spun up a course on negotiation by design or applied design thinking for negotiators. And I still teach that. I’ve been teaching it for the last five, six years now. But the idea for the book came after my most recent law review article, which is dry and tedious, and I recommend it to no one.
Manda: So we’re all going to rush and read it now, for sure. I’ll need a link to put in the show.
Dave: Yeah, for sure. There’s there’s a link on my website, if one really has insomnia, it’s a perfect cure. But the upshot was it was my first real exploration of what’s in the title ‘design for legal systems’. It was my first foray into writing down what I was thinking about design as applied to legal systems, and a lot of that emanated from my thesis. And so as I was doing that, I started thinking about the blend. The possible blend of design plus negotiation plus systems plus climate and activism. Because I was feeling… The first chapter of the book really speaks to what I was feeling and what I think. And you as an experienced writer, I think, know this all too well. If we’re feeling something that’s going on in the world it’s a pretty good bet there are a lot of other people who are feeling the same thing. And so the feeling I was having is one of sheer powerlessness in the face of climate change and the inaction. I started studying climate change way back when… Let’s see… Kyoto was still being written and the U.N. Triple C was, I think, at Rio COP. Rio, which was probably early teens, low teens. And I think the second FAR had come out and we’re now on the sixth FAR. We’re now past Glasgow COP twenty six. Kyoto is long since expired and didn’t work for a lot of reasons. But I decided I was going to bring my negotiation design blend to take a look at climate and climate change. And to me, the thing that shifts the narrative from powerlessness to powerfulness is activism, because the problem is so overwhelming to any individual.
Dave: In fact, I even quote Bill Gates on this. It’s kind of interesting. I’ll get to that in a second. It’s so overwhelming to any individual that we feel powerless and it becomes depressing. It becomes almost fatalistic and and it puts us back in the chair and triggers some very basic human emotions, which is ‘I got to take care of myself. There’s nothing I can do that’s going to change things. Somebody else is going to have to do it. So I’m just going to as much as I hate it, I’m just going to do what I can do. And that’s compost, recycle, et cetera, et cetera, which is all good stuff to do. And I do it and you do it. But it’s not going to change climate change’.
Dave: I’ll pull in the Bill Gates quote now. Somebody was interviewing Gates and talking about, you know, what problems in the world, you know, frighten you the most. And he said “a small group of terrorists with a nuclear weapon or a pandemic, worldwide pandemic. These are things that I know I cannot solve myself”. And if a billionaire with one hundred and fifty billion dollars in a foundation like Bill Gates feels powerless in the face of those certain things, I use that to sort of access my own, the depth of powerlessness that we’re all going to naturally feel. It’s natural. It’s normal to feel that it’s the right human reaction. The question is, where do we go from there? And find some power. And in my humble opinion, the place to start is joining forces with somebody else like minded and taking some small but positive active step forward.
Manda: Ok, definitely what this podcast is about. There’s so much there. Just before I go back to a question, I’d like to ask What is an FAR? You said we’d had one and it didn’t work at Kyoto or passed another. I just want to know that’s that. I can put it in the notes.
Dave: Oh, the if I’m not mistaken, it’s the U.N. Triple C scientific team, and I’m going to forget the acronym for them. It’s the major report that comes out every couple three, four years.
Manda: OK, Like the one that came out recently?
Dave: Like the one that came out recently, which I think was number six. I think it was FAR six. And if you look at the arc of them, the science holds together. What they said in the previous one, it’s just like the keeling chart on carbon dioxide. It just one data point after the other, after the other just stands two feet square on the same curve. And the only thing that’s changing is the odds of the eventualities are increasing.
Manda: Yeah, definitely. So I really want to drill more deeply into activism. But before that? So you’re at the D School, which is funded by a benevolent billionaire, which sounds fantastic, all kudos to him. And endeavouring to disseminate the DNA of design thinking. And I’m thinking that I started at Glasgow and then at Cambridge, and I’ve been associated with a number of other universities and they all think they’ve got design departments. What is it that is different in the DNA of the design that you are disseminating at the billionaire funded school? What is it that makes it special and makes it the kind of thing that could make us a difference and give us agency?
Dave: Sure. I will say that design thinking is now finding its traction at a lot of design schools around the world. It’s not just unique to Stanford. Basically, design is the larger term, this is where I like to start. Design is the larger term for the act of making something, whether it’s tangible or intangible, in a sort of programmatic or systematised way that solves the problem at hand and produces the optimal product or non tangible,intangible system or concept or idea of a programme, et cetera. So we’ve had design for a long, long time. And design even at Stanford, the D School emanated from the engineering department and was solely dedicated to designing products. You know, they worked on the mouse, they worked on keyboards. They worked on all manner of tech products and the haptics, et cetera, et cetera. Design thinking is a… I won’t say it’s a subset of the design… I like to think of it as sort of a creative motor for design. Design thinking is a, has always been there, so it’s not anything that’s been invented at any design school anywhere. It’s just been coalesced by academics and by designers into a subset of study and work.
Dave: And design thinking is the way that good designers accomplish what they do. And there’s a way to break it down. It’s, you know, I’ve never used this parallel before, but one one of the things we do in law schools around the world is we take students who are unfamiliar with law and particularly in their first year, whatever the system may be from Japan to the UK to Africa, you train them to think like lawyers. But they don’t call it, actually they do sometimes call it legal thinking or lawyer thinking. So in a way that’s analogous to design-thinking. Training people who are unfamiliar with design in how designers think about problems. How they approach a problem, they approach figuring out potential solutions, possible solutions and how they work towards developing the solution. Again, most of those solutions tend to be products, including software, which is a tangible product. Where I’m interested in design, is using those design thinking tools for intangible things like human systems and how we can affect improvement in human systems for better outcomes. Or sometimes, but not very often, design from a blank piece of paper, from scratch, a new system that addresses a problem in an optimal way.
Manda: Brilliant. So we have a blank piece of paper and we could design our way out of climate change, which I think everyone is agreeing the the window to do that is getting narrower by the day. And it seems to me there are two approaches. There is the tweaking the current system or there’s looking more at Donella Meadows hierarchy of leverage points. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but the top one for her, the second to top one, is changing the paradigm and the top one is abandon old paradigms and write down at the bottom is, you know, tweaking tax systems and things. And it increasingly seems to me that if we are going to get through this, we have to create complete systemic change. And as an activist, I have found myself feeling increasingly despairing that the activism in which I have indulged, which I’m guessing was possibly not as well designed as it could have been, at best it was shifting the Overton window. And so for people not familiar with the Overton window; a brief explanation, it’s the breadth of what is considered basically centrist, we would call it in the U.K. now, the span of things that are considered normal.
Manda: And so in the U.K., particularly, we had a bunch of people on the far right pulling the Overton window of Brexit way over to Let’s Leave the EU. Whereas before they were shouting, it was quite middle of the line and nobody really cared. It was sixteenth or something on people’s list of things they were worried about at elections. And what XR has done is move the Overton window on climate change quite a long way towards the point where people are aware that it’s at least a problem. But they’re not… I don’t think that however much we sit in the streets or lock ourselves onto the BBC, that it’s really creating systemic change. It’s annoying a bunch of people and it’s creating a degree of awareness. But at the same time, I think it’s doing exactly what you said. It’s pushing people into resistance because they don’t know what to do. And everybody really knows, as you said, that recycling our plastic and making compost is nice, but it’s not actually solving the problem. So how do we design our activism so that it helps to move systemic change? Is that even a possibility, or are we talking an oxymoron there?
Dave: No, I think it’s a possibility. Let me do a very designery thing here and try a reframe.
Manda: And it’s a simple one. And I think many of your listeners probably already got there. But I believe that the path forward is going to require a balance of both large scale paradigm, systemic change and local directed activity that may feel incremental in the meantime. I don’t like this phrase, but the trick of it is to find the right balance between those two things. My perspective is as follows. And this is where I think the guts of my book will go to. I believe that to get real change around the world from the people and entities that need to make that change, we’re going to have to address governments and corporations. In the U.S. anyway I’ve come to the conclusion that corporations basically own our government. And I wouldn’t be surprised if others in other countries feel the same way.
Manda: Oh yes, in the U.K. Definitely.
Dave: Yeah. So what we’re talking about here, when we talk about governments and corporations, let’s not miss the bigger picture. We’re talking about power, capital P Power. Capital P Power in whatever institutional form has the ability to start tomorrow to make the changes that will move us in the right direction to reduce fossil fuel dependence, to reduce carbon emissions, to increase investment in carbon capture, to do all the things that we know need to be done. And many of the things we already have the technology for. You know, massively upscale solar, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. They’re not doing it. Why? The governments aren’t doing it, that’s where the power to do it resides, in the force of the law. Because the corporations that own those governments are telling them not to do it. It sounds simplistic, but that ultimately is my sense of what’s happening. Because the power in the corporations is basically big global money, oligarchical money. Some of it’s as I like to say, some of it’s clean money, some of it’s dirty money, some of it’s filthy money. It doesn’t really matter what kind of money. The government pays no attention to the kind of, you know, the quality of the money that flows into government so long as it spends right. That seems to be the only criteria. And so there is a huge systemic problem there. One that I just generally label dirty capitalism.
Dave: One of my big bugaboos about dirty capitalism is that forever, I mean for the last 50-100 years, capitalism and the economists that helped design, create run guide that capitalism have permitted corporations to basically treat Earth as a free garbage dump. And until we make corporations pay, like every human being individually has to pay when they dump their garbage or they put their trash in the wrong place, or they create too much trash or they create too much pollution. Corporations get a pass on this and a very, very, very expensive pass to boot. You know, the sea turtles that I was lucky enough to swim with off the coast of Indonesia a couple of years ago, who are ingesting microplastics and dying, have no say in whether Coca-Cola is allowed to continue using oil based single use plastics, virgin plastics, that get dumped off the shore of Indonesia in volumes that would literally boggle the mind. How much plastic is floating around out there. And it disintegrates into microplastics and it kills wildlife. Is Coca-Cola paying for that damage? No, it is not. Are they doing a huge marketing campaign to try and make the world think that they’re better at their abuse of virgin plastics and single use bottles? They’re yeah, they’re trying. But they’re not moving fast enough, hard enough, aggressively enough because they don’t have to. Because nobody’s making them do it.
Dave: So for me, the place for activism to start is in an organised and designed strategic and tactical approach to bringing the kinds of pressure to bear on governments and corporations that we actually have the power to bring. And that is dollar votes, boycotts of corporations and their products and services, because that’s their one vulnerability. It’s the one place where capitalism comes, you know, hands the activists a lever. Is to make the capitalism work in our favour against corporate behaviour. And then item number two is to bring huge numbers of people to bear on governments. In my book, I tell the story and everyone’s aware of Arab Spring from years ago, but I tell the story of how it began, and it’s not a comfortable story. But Mohamed Bouazizi, I think I’m getting his name correct, I haven’t looked at this story for a while, so I apologise if I got it wrong. He was a young man in Tunisia who was a farmer with his father in the outskirts of Tunisia, and his father was trying to do better with his little plot of land. As a farmer, he went to the bank to borrow the money to do irrigation on his farm, and it didn’t work well enough for him to be able to pay off the loan. The bank took the farm. So Muhammad was left to try and make money in the streets as a vendor of fruits and vegetables.
Dave: He had to borrow from basically a street lender, enough money to acquire the fruits and vegetables to go out and sell that day and hopefully pocket some cash and pay off the street lender at the same time. It’s how it worked and he is twenty four, twenty five. And bear in mind, it was well known that Muhammad was actually wanting to go to college, but he had to help with the farm because his father fell ill. Back when they still had the farm. And so he got, by forces beyond him, diverted into a life that was not education, but labour. And bless his heart that’s what he had to do for the family. So corruption being a problem in Tunisia, he fell victim and the police harassed him to a point that they claimed he couldn’t sell the vegetables on the street without a proper permit, which was basically a bribe shakedown. He didn’t have the money for it, so they took his wheelbarrow, his scales and all his fruit away from him. Fairly desperate and despondent, he went to the local governor of the region and asked for a meeting to just try and get his stuff back. He wasn’t even given a meeting, so he went out into the middle of the street, doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire. He died from self-immolation, but that single act triggered a countrywide protest in Tunisia, which succeeded in two weeks time throwing out the dictator of twenty three years of Tunisia, to make him flee the country. This is the part of the story I think is really important to remember, which is it’s not just a democracy and the power of the vote that allows us to change leadership, change the law. This is an iron fisted dictator who had initially been voted into office and then managed to hold office, likely illegally. That, to some Americans, may sound familiar. And the power of the people in the streets was enough to send a dictator fleeing for his life to Paris. And that event spread to 11 other Arab nations, which became the Arab Spring. And other dictators were ousted. Other governments were forced to reconstitute, etc., all based on one man’s act, who unfortunately had to give his life and unfortunately didn’t get to see the fruits of the power that he unleashed. So the power is there within the people collectively to do amazing things with respect to government as well as corporations. So rather than them be Accidental one off, ad hoc sort of random acts that trigger action, I would like to think that all of us of a like mind can work in a more designed strategic way to increase the odds that any one activist or group of activists can trigger a similar kind of tectonic shift.
Manda: So how do we bring the people together? Because I remember reading Bill Gates his book, and I’m really interested that he was worried about a small group of terrorists with a nuclear bomb or a pandemic, and he wasn’t terrified by climate change. But he does. His book clearly is… He does get it. I think a lot of his solutions are very technocratic, but at the back when he says, he has a list of 10 things that ordinary people can do, and right at the top is get involved in politics. Which is essentially, you know, create political actions, create activist movements. And over here we have Extinction Rebellion, which has been endeavouring to do just that. And the first year it was very high adrenaline, very heady. Lots of people on the streets. A very wide mix of ages; a lot of retired people. There were a lot of young people. There weren’t many people in the middle because they were busy still trying to earn enough money to pay the rent. But the people who either didn’t have a rent yet or had kind of paid it all off were out there. And what we saw was a very powerful backlash by the corporate media, who are funded by billionaires and the right wing of the political parties, to the point where the current Conservative Party is pushing a bill through parliament now, which will give them the power to arrest people on suspicion of being a member of XR and then lock them up for a considerable length of time. Many years.
Manda: So how do we get… Because we still technically have government by consent, we still have policing by consent. If you know, 10, 15, 20 million of us got onto the streets, then it would be very hard to lock that many people up. But even at the height of XR, we had, I think maybe I think there were 10000 of us in Trafalgar Square. And there’d been a long build up to that and and I doubt we’ll ever get that many again, because the police would be wise to that. How do we create enough interest? How do we design a structure that brings enough people on board when the economic system is in the process of collapsing and people are more and more afraid of how they’re going to pay the bills that are escalating rapidly? How do we give them the vision for this to become the thing that they are prepared to risk their life and liberty for?
Dave: Great question. I don’t have a ready answer because this is the problem that I’m working on, I guess as the guts of or part of the guts of the book. But I’ll say this; part one, piece one is networking in scale amongst us. Part two is small modules of networked activists who are linked to other small modules of activists, who then develop strategies to use their activism in a specific way. So 10000, 50000 people in one place may be the right answer in some instances, or it may be 5000 people at 10 different places at the same time. Using technology as a sort of command and control for the activists, and that means c and c loosely, whereby people can be moved around as the police activity is tracked. This is something that we learnt at the what’s called the battle in Seattle. I don’t know if you’re familiar.
Manda: Nope, Tell us more.
Dave: In I want to say the late 90s
Manda: Was this part of the Occupy Movement?
Dave: Occupy was was mostly East Coast, mostly Wall Street. There was a WTO meeting planned for Seattle. For some reason ninety nine is the year that comes to mind, but I could be off on that. That’s just a guess. But just Google battle in Seattle. And in advance, in the full year in advance of the conference actually beginning, activists descended on Seattle, which is a fairly liberal city in its own right. And organically developed, groups from all over were coming into Seattle and developed some interesting alliances. One of them being Labour, the truck drivers union and the Green Turtle Society. For some reason or another, they developed an affinity and put their minds and their bodies together to do this or that or the other. And what happened is a sort of self-leadership arose and emerged from within the the disparate groups of activists on site. It turned violent, which is unfortunate because when it turns violent that shifts the default leverage over to, power shifts, total leverage over to police and government. Because they always have the justification to crack down on violence. So non-violence really has to be the pathway to prevent giving the police the justification in the eyes of the public to bring violence upon violence. So I consider Seattle to be a singular example of how activists can work in a way that used to be the catchphrase in Silicon Valley, in a way that is highly aligned and loosely coupled.
Manda: Sounds good.
Dave: And social media was the way that they did it. And of course, we know social media, particularly Twitter, was central to some of the things that happened in Arab Spring. And the social media is only getting better for these kinds of purposes.
Manda: Is it not also getting more obviously controlled by by state power? I think they weren’t listening in on Twitter to quite the same extent that they are now.
Dave: Yeah. Maybe not. They may have been caught by surprise. And you know, now we’re going to talk about the encryption issues and the end to end encryption that is, was the enormous power of WhatsApp. And then you find out that Mark, Sheryl, Facebook and Mehta all the agglomeration of… Uh, I can’t use the word on your show… That they have now taken have now purchased WhatsApp and who knows whether the end to end encryption is still valid? I know Apple encryption on their phones is still fairly intact and they have fought the government very, very hard on maintaining encryption, except for cases literally of terrorism. And so I’m still in the early stages of developing my real on the ground thinking about this issue. But again, my belief is that activists working as nimble groups of relatively small modules can aggregate, disaggregate, in ways that can be strategic and be effective, and yet avoid giving the big P Power, whether it’s corporate or government, the kind of justification they need to crack down. I don’t know if the laws of long term arrest for being a member of XR will last. In the U.S., in Florida, in the U.S. they are passing laws left, right and centre that are intended to literally allow the police in any demonstration to just arrest the Liberals.
Manda: All right. How are they going to identify? They’re the ones that don’t have their heads shaved and Nazi tattoos all over their arms?
Dave: Yeah, or they’re the ones that they just, you know, that are causing problems or they don’t like or are carrying the wrong banners or we’re not sure what they are so we’ll arrest them and then we’ll interrogate them and we’ll let them go if they say the right words, that sort of stuff. It’s really nasty fascist stuff. The good news is that some of these laws are not going to get past the courts. The Republicans are busy writing these laws simply because it’s politically expedient for them to claim that they’ve got these anti liberal laws going through their system. But they know full well some of them won’t survive constitutional muster because our judiciary still is not fascist. Politics is fascist, but the judiciary is not. Not yet that broken.
Manda: All right. I would like to unpick. Joanna Macy has her triad, which you may be familiar with, of holding actions, systemic change and shift in consciousness. And this arises out of her Buddhist model. But it seems to me that the activism that we’re discussing at the moment is in the holding actions. And unless we can offer systemic change and shifting consciousness, we haven’t got the other two legs of our three legged stool. And that the corporations are run by people who don’t function the same way you and I do. I just read today on Twitter at the time of recording, that Jeff Bezos just had a very old, beautiful and architecturally amazing bridge removed in Holland so that his 500 million dollar superyacht could go up a particular river. And the Dutch did this! Because that amount of money can buy anything. And when you’ve got that amount of money normal human constraints just don’t apply. And that it is the case as far as I can tell across the western world that governments have been captured by the corporations or the banks or, you know, there’s probably not a huge amount of division between the corporations and the banks just now. And so unless the greater mass of the body politic really begins to shift, they’re just going to ignore us.
Manda: And exactly as you just said, we’ve got Republicans and Democrats on your side of the water. We’ve got two political parties that seem pretty much indivisible on our side of the water until we can get red people and blue people to talk together and then to face the politicians and go, You know what? This just isn’t working for us. There’s a brilliant strategy of divide and rule happening. And so I’m noticing that negotiation was one of your things that you began with earlier on. Is there a way we can cross the divide and talk to the kinds of truckers who just went to Canada, who I’m guessing probably wouldn’t be the same kind of people now at the battle in Seattle. Are the people who think that Republican governors passing in laws that you just mentioned is a good thing because they feel under siege because they think that their way of life is under threat. How do we negotiate with people who believe things differently to us, to get to the point where the impending climate catastrophe is even on their radar?
Dave: Yeah. So this is a question that comes up in negotiation in lots of different ways. But this, I think in the politics space is the most extreme. And my general answer specific to this is there’s a certain number or type of person who you cannot really negotiate with, because… And the extreme would be somebody who’s in a cult, somebody whose belief system has been so co-opted, however, whatever the mechanism.
Manda: So the Q people in the States? Pretty interesting cult.
Dave: Yeah. And perhaps the hardcore Trumpists who may or may not be fully on board with Q. It’s hard to even know if there’s a difference there. But somebody who’s at that degree of hysteria or psychosis, you can’t negotiate with that person because they’re not operating in the same reality. And that’s in my view, it’s sad, but it’s OK for our purposes. We can leave that extreme set of people to the side. They’re not that large of a population. Politically, on the other end of the problematic spectrum are what I would say, independents. Reasonable Republicans who are just fighting for their lives because they’ve either been co-opted, leveraged or they’re just too scared to lose their political power to speak out. Those people can be negotiated with, and I’ll come back to those in a minute. The people in the middle is the one that’s probably the largest of the three populations within that subpopulation. And those are the ones who we can’t allow them all to be free riders on our efforts, although initially, we may have to begin our efforts and allow them to free ride as as as it were or just stand on the side. But at some point they need to be brought aboard. The traditional negotiation approach is to do a deep dive to find out what their real interests are. With the cultists you can’t find that out because they don’t even know what their interest is. But the Trumpists, let’s say, the hardcore right that still supports Donald Trump in our country, for example, we need to do a better job, and it’s to me, it’s kind of surprising that we haven’t. We being the liberal or the Democratic Party, haven’t figured out what two or three things do they really want as a population. Because they they have to want something.
Dave: There’s something that they want other than what they’ve been told they want, which is, you know, quote, ‘owning the libs’. Right? That’s just a feel good, you know, that’s just dessert. That’s just, you know, licking the icing spoon. What do they really want? They want a better life. They want to be respected. They want this, that and the other. We have to find out what that is because the only way you get somebody on board is with a shared interest. And that means finding out what they want and figuring out a way that your programme, your process, your approach can give them that in exchange for their quote unquote ‘coming on board’. It’s really a simplistic description of some more sophisticated negotiation. But what we haven’t done yet, We’re not even to a point where we can implement that yet politically in the states, because the Democrats have done a poor job of really finding out what it is. The I’ll call them the radical right really was…I don’t know anything about UK politics, but I’m not sure that the bulk of the population of the UK wanted Brexit.
Manda: No, no, no.
Dave: And yet it happened. So why is that? Why do people?
Manda: Because we have a democratic system that is broken,
Dave: Why do people vote and act against their own self-interest? It’s a very interesting question, because rational human beings don’t. Rational human beings act in their own self-interest.
Manda: But we have a very effective system now in social media and associated legacy media, of tweaking people at a limbic level so that their rationality has gone out the window. I think basic neuroscience, all decisions are made at a limbic level first, and if you can access somebody’s limbus, you can push them in directions that they don’t really know why they’re doing that, but the tribal instinct will take them there. I listened to a very interesting podcast with Tristan Harris the other day talking to General McMaster, I think, one of your recent generals about the fact that the Third World War is underway and it’s a cycle war, and that the Russians very deliberately have planned out how to break apart the West by just enhancing the divisions that already exist. And they’ve got really sophisticated, you know, bot farms that are really capable of taking tiny schisms and and blowing them into huge flame wars that people then find it very hard to step across their limbic divides. So given that and given, I don’t know what you think the time scales are, but I’ve read a paper that I mention on the podcast a lot, it came out of the Rosaline Institute, which was looking at the oceans and the triad of acidification because of climate change, toxic waste and microplastics, as you already mentioned. And we have 25 years before the oceans are dead, and once the oceans are dead, 50 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, it comes from phytoplankton. So we have a 50 percent reduction in oxygen pretty much overnight, which will be not a lot of fun.
Manda: So we have a huge amount of vested interest amongst the power brokers and some highly sophisticated information warfare happening from external parties whose interest at least they think will be served if we fall apart. You know, I think it’s a kind of a short term view, but there we go. I’m curious now, where I’m taking this is -I am taking it somewhere – in your blog, which I really recommend people, you spoke about designing a green print of elements for a personal eco psychology. There was a quote from Nobel climatologist Stephen Schneider, who says “I often wonder whether it would be possible to solve long term global problems until we can overcome collective denial, which in turn may not become Conscious until we grapple with personal myths”. And so as we’re heading down towards the close, I’d be really interested in your take on grappling with personal myths and your view of the green print of eco psychology. Because it seems to me that connecting with the web of life is a way to tap into something that gives us agency and tha again is universal. That most people, whatever their political viewpoint, find solace in the natural world if they are not at a point where they’re so triggered that they can’t relax at all. You know, if they can find any kind of shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic, then they find it in green and blue spaces. So how do we help that to become more current in the world?
Dave: Yeah, the personal green print is something I’m going to explore more deeply in the book. So my thinking is not complete on it, but the idea is this: developing some sort of statement and it can be expressed in any way anyone wants. I’m a writer. Some people are drawers. Some people just can do it visually in their mind. A personal green print being a description of, like you said, an eco philosophy. Eco philosophy of life for themselves and maybe for their family and maybe for humankind. It’s a very personal thing, so it can be any of those. And it’s a living document, meaning every so often we can revisit our personal green print and add to it as we learn more, as we do more and develop our thinking more deeply on any individual human beings role in life on the planet, all of humankind’s role in life on the planet. In our personal view of all that. I’m fond of the eco philosopher from Australia by the name of Freya Mathews; I’m forgetting the title of her book. But part of my thinking stemmed from something she wrote and I read years ago, because this is when I was doing my dissertation research. She was talking about whale and krill. Is it a baleen whale? No, it may not be that eats krill, krill being. It’s not a plant, but it’s a little shrimp like animal and zooplankton, and there’s some whale that eats krill.
Manda: No, I think it’s baleen whales. I think you’re right.
Dave: Ok. The way she described it was from a philosophical point of view, which is if krill exists in the oceans as we know it does and the whale, this species of whale is designed by Evolution, not intellectual and intelligent design, but has evolved to survive on krill. Then it’s fair to say that krill is part of a baleen whale in a philosophical sense. And conversely, you could argue that that whale is a part of krill as well. And she extrapolates from this very simple relationship. And you could expand it quickly to symbiotic relationships that exist all over the oceans to the idea not just life is interconnected because we can all understand that idea. But at a much deeper philosophical level; and you can visualise some sort of connectivity image if you like; but all of life is so intertwined that our narrative, our eco philosophical, personal, green print, must incorporate the idea that when I look outside my window at the redwoods right now, that those trees and the oxygen, but also the chemicals that they release into the atmosphere on a daily basis are part of my existence. Those trees are part of me in a very fundamental way in the same way that my left foot is part of me.
Dave: And when you start reframing the way we fit individually in the world, you then necessarily start reframing how groups of individuals fit in the world and thus how whole societies. That’s just straight logic. Extension of logic. So once it’s an individual has a personal green print that incorporates this idea of being a part of other life in the world and human beings. Clearly, everything we eat and all the water that we drink is very much a part of us. And so I like the idea of encouraging people to come up with a personal green print because it has a lot of benefits for me. The two are the one that I just described, which is it causes them to realise that they are so connected at a deep philosophical level, not just, you know, an intellectual level. And the other is we start hopefully getting people more and more people to share this idea of a personal green print, expand the number of people who have a personal green print and thereby reframe their thinking about their role in the world via their own personal narrative. And they’re more likely at that point, I think then to be amenable to a larger narrative of a society or substance, you know, smaller society, a group of activists who share that narrative.
Dave: This is part, I think of the scaling up from, let’s say, a group of two high school students who take on a, you know, no more plastic bags at the local grocery store project for high school, which is great. I love it. That, to me exemplifies the simple little one activist step that two high school students could easily do to go convince the local store to shift away from single use plastic bags. And if they haven’t, if it’s not that, then it’s some other simple environmental project. But that’s just the beginning. It makes those two high school students feel powerful instead of power less, it has the effect of bonding the two students into a module. And then they can share their plan with other high school students, even in other cities or other countries. And hopefully, you develop an emergent property; a sharing of reinforced success and rise to the level of developing a growing number, just a raw increase in the number, of activist minded human beings in the world.
Manda: That’s truly beautiful. We probably ought to end there. But I have one more question which we may end up not using. We may just go to the end. I’m just reminded of there’s a wonderful book by a very young woman, 18 year old, called Tomorrow is Too Late: An International Youth Manifesto for Climate Justice. And she just sent out to her social media network. And she’s got stories in there from people as young as eight. Young climate activists. And they are so moving. One of them, this lad in Iran, and you know, he was exactly as he said they started off little module, they got to know each other, they all felt really empowered. They had to shut down because the secret police were onto them. And that’s when I realised that, you know, things may not be great in Britain if you’re in XR, but you don’t have the Iranian secret police on your head. So that you can’t actually connect with each other because you’re going to just vanish into a prison and nobody will ever see you again. So actually, you know, it could be a lot worse. So I love the idea of that connectedness giving people a sense of power. So as we’re heading, really, definitely, this is a last question. In your your blog about the the green print, which I still think is formative and beautiful, you’re quoting George Sessions, who created the deep ecology movement. He says “the attempt to solve these eco philosophical problems on purely logical or conceptual grounds is to fail to realise that this approach in itself is part of the old paradigm which needs to be replaced”. And just as we head to the close, I wonder, have you a sense of the paradigm that we could move towards, the new paradigm, that isn’t just iterations of the old one retweaked to be a bit less destructive. But the new paradigm that we could all inhabit that gives us a light at the end of the tunnel to which we are running.
Dave: I became convinced in my early in my research, but probably later in my life than I should have, that the vast majority of decisions human beings make are made emotionally and subconsciously or unconsciously. Oddly enough, this came from Marvin Minsky, an artificial intelligence scholar at, and the founder of, the MIT Media Lab. I’m sorry, AI Lab. And although he was unable to develop AI with technology at the time, he was working on expert systems, which was trying to get human decision making into computing, and it was a failure because they didn’t have the technology to do it. But he came away with the takeaway that most humans make their decisions emotionally, and then they use their Conscious mind to apply logic to justify the decision they’ve already made. But they fool themselves into thinking that they actually made the decision with that logic.
Manda: Post hoc reasoning. Yes.
Dave: And I think this is a really key point. So to change people’s minds, we actually need to access their emotions. You know, it’s sort of Maya Angelou’s quote is applicable here: ‘People don’t remember what you say or what you do. They remember how you made them feel’. So. My approach ever since college religion class and my introduction to Buddhism has been meditative work. Although a lot of people shy away and resist the idea, because they don’t really, I guess, understand it or haven’t experienced the power. Is meditative work, which effectively is just quieting that Conscious mind, and allowing the other aspects of our being to surface and ‘have a voice’. And do a better job of accessing our emotions. Do a better job of accessing our emotions and feelings, because I think that’s where the power and joy in life comes from. And one way to address other people’s emotions is through narrative.
Manda: Yay! Indeed. Hence, the Thrutopia project. Yes. Yes, exactly, because any good writer absolutely is hitting in there at a limbic level, but giving the intellectual structure to let people understand why they feel what they feel. You know, in its essence, that’s pretty much what all fiction is about.
Dave: I think I would be doing your audience as well as the author a disservice if I just didn’t mention Richard Powers latest book Overstory; the Pulitzer prise winner. If you’re a lover of trees at all and you’re a lover of thoughtful fiction. I would say Overstory is a book worth considering.
Manda: Definitely. All right. I shall put a link to it in the show notes. In the meantime, we are we are definitely over time. Dave Johnson, thank you so much for giving us your time and the depth of your thinking. And I really look forward to your book coming out. Let us know when it is, and we’ll we’ll have another conversation and see where you get to with it. Because it sounds like a really exciting exploration, just as a personal journey for you.
Dave: Yeah, I’ll do that and thank you so much for the time you’ve given me here today.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Dave for embarking on a book that’s going to help us all to find a new way of creating our activism for exploring all of the many complex issues that lead to it and for bringing us the early thoughts as he gets into the full writing of the book. We will come back when he’s finished it and have another conversation. In the meantime, catching up on things, the book by Freyer Mathews that he was talking about is called The Ecological Self, and I will put a link to that in the show notes, along with a link to Dave’s website on which you will find his blogs. And I think the one on designing your own green print, the elements of a personal eco philosophy is really worth a read. So we’ll be back next week with another conversation.
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