Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The wheel keeps on turning? The Issue Attention Cycle

Whether the Climate March on Saturday- trailed in the Financial Times, of all places- gets 5,000 or 50,000 (my money is on a figure slightly closer to the former than the latter), there's still a central question the organisers should ask themselves- “If the government could ignore 2 million in February 2003, why are we making this the central plank of our campaigning activity?”

And when climate groups in my (adopted) home town are finding it difficult to attract even the usual suspects to their meetings, let alone draw in new faces, then something is amiss.

You can blame it on poorly conceived or executed campaigns. You can say that people haven't absorbed Susan George's lesson-

Give everyone a task. I had a dear friend who, until he was captured and sent to a concentration camp, had been a leader of the French Resistance. He was in charge of infiltrating agents into the ministries and public administrations, the railways, the post office, etc. He said the most difficult part of the job was not recruiting people- many brave French men and women asked nothing better than to risk their lives against the enemy,- but continually finding something for them to do. Because he knew that if they didn't have a task- even a not terribly vital one- they would drift away and be unavailable when a real opportunity arose.”

Page 167 of Another World is Possible, if..., Verso 2004

Or you can look to a thirty year old article about the “Issue Attention Cycle”.

In a nutshell,

“First, Downs says, each environmental issue goes through phases as its introduced and discussed.

Pre-problem: A problem exists, but only some experts and interest groups are alarmed.
Discovery and Enthusiasm: There is alarm and concern over a discovered environmental problem. People band together to support a solution and attack the problem.
Realization: The public starts to understand the cost and difficulty of making progress on the issue.
Decline in Interest: Because of this realization, there is a decline in public interest (and therefore media attention).
Post-problem: The issue isn’t resolved but there is less attention on it. However, the overall level of interest is higher than when the problem was discovered. This may result in small recurrences of interest.”

So, at the front end of 2007 meetings of various groups were pretty full, with the papers and airwaves full of the Stern Review and the IPCC 4th Assessment Report. Over the last 18 months, from personal experience regular meetings/events have either stayed the same size or gotten smaller. (Climate Camp is an exception, for various reasons).

Now that the government can point to legislation (“world's first” legislation, no less), are we in post-problem mode? Will that make it harder to motivate, mobilise (and capacity-build) a whole bunch of people to get doing more stuff, regardless of how crap/uncrap our repertoires and meetings are?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address...

For interesting perspectives on these sorts of questions, check out Campaign Strategy and Great Turning Times.

Meanwhile, George Monbiot gets stuck into the Climate Committee's report-

“Lord Turner has two jobs. The first, as chair of the Financial Services Authority, is to save capitalism. The second, as chair of the Committee on Climate Change, is to save the biosphere from the impacts of capitalism. I have no idea how well he is discharging the first task, but if his approach to the second one is anything to go by, you should dump your shares and buy gold.”

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