Learning from Failure: Local Climate Activism from Success to Stasis

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 11:30
Location: Elise Richter Saal (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Marc HUDSON, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester, United Kingdom
In 2009 environmental activists in Manchester, UK produced a report on climate change that led to Manchester City Council engaging stakeholders in the creation of a radical ‘stakeholder climate change action plan’. It included two headline goals -  an emissions target (41% reduction by 2020) but also the creation of a “low carbon culture”.

Six years on the plan is in tatters. Emissions targets are being missed (even in the context of a dramatic economic recession) and a low carbon culture has not yet been defined, let alone enacted..  Few of Manchester’s elected councillors have even bothered to undertake ‘carbon literacy training’.

These six years present an extremely fruitful case of what advocacy coalitions and issue entrepreneurs face when policy windows close because issue attention cycles, austerity hits, and bureaucratic inertia recaptures control.

Under what conditions, if any, is it possible for grassroots organisations to sustain institutional memory, to avoid the twin dangers of co-optation and burn-out, and to work within and yet ‘against’ local authorities?  How can groups avoid the dangers of the ‘smugosphere’ and despair? (Hudson and Aburawa, 2016)   Under what conditions do new methods of organising (e-petitions, social media, videos) help to recruit and retain activists, thickening the web of civil society? 

This paper will draw upon seven years of participant observation in climate activism at the local authority level, and interviews with activists, bureaucrats, politicians and business people. It conclude not just with a shopping list of’ lessons learnt’, but reflections on why social movements find it so hard to innovate beyond traditional repertoires of marches, rallies, petitions and symbolic action.


Hudson, M and Aburawa, A. (2016) ‘Pathological and ineffective activism – what is to be done?’ in (eds) Godfrey and Torres Emergent Possibilities for Global Sustainability: Intersections of Race, Class and Gender, Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge