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What is Movement Ecology and how can it provide radical hope?

Movement ecology is the core theme running through Linda Doyle and Lucas de Koning’s work as co-directors of Movement Ecology Collective. They are facilitating two workshops on this topic at the New Organisers Conference: 

  • Movement Ecology & Strategies will explore the strategic benefit of a diversity of approaches.

  • Complexity Games & Movement Ecology will use games to provide an intuitive sense of what complex is, and examine the implications for strategy development. 

In this long-read, the latest in our series of blog pieces alongside the New Organising Conference, Linda and Luca delve into these ideas, and how they can help to create the change we want to see in the world.

Our challenge

From climate breakdown to migrant justice, from fighting misogyny to the cost of living crisis – we are in many intersecting struggles that have the same roots. Yet, as trade unionists, activists, organisers or campaigners, we often remain siloed.

Worse than that, we get stuck in our disagreements: endless debates about theories of change, tactics and distribution of resources, repeatedly leading to animosity and ultimately diminishing our chances for success. All of this fuels the anxiety and burnout that changemakers are experiencing anyway.

To make things even more urgent, the current polycrisis that is destabilising whole societies not only demands and creates opportunities for fundamental change, it also prepares the ground for a resurgence of fascism – a challenge we can only meet together.

Radical Hope

In the face of all this, it’s easy to feel dejected, uncertain and quite frankly, a bit hopeless. So how can we muster hope in the face of all of these challenges? How can we continue doing this much needed work?

For us at the Movement Ecology Collective, we find hope in resilience and collective power by looking at social movements through an ecological lens. Ever evolving ecosystems build resilience through diversity and connections. A species's survival is dependent on a web of connections and interactions with a rich variety of actors. Radical hope emerges when we build connections and grow diversity within our movements. This enables us to build broad-based collective power and reach our strategic goals on the way to achieve the systemic changes needed for justice, peace and joy.

Introducing movement ecology

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s rewind a minute, and look at social movements through an ecological lens: We can see movements as ecosystems, where every participating organisation has its own goals, resource needs, relationships, etc. Just like species within a biological ecosystem, social movement organisations create, develop and fill the niches of a complex living system.

Within a movement ecosystem, actors are all directly or indirectly connected – some through antagonism, others in symbiosis or support. Sometimes, organisations are aware of each other but do not interact (yet!)

Ecosystems accumulate connections and resources when they grow, but to stay resilient, they need diversity and the ability to break up connections and form new ones. Movement ecology tries to understand and help keep a balance between the two.

Why use this lens?

To understand your environment

Every organisation working for a more just and equitable world is part of a larger ecosystem of social changemakers. If you want to create change, you must understand this ecosystem.

Movement ecology helps create this understanding through movement mapping: collaboratively developing an information-rich visual map of the ecosystem you and your organisation(s) are part of. Such a map shows actors, their relative power and how they are connected (or not), but also their strategic goals and capabilities – in all their diversity.

To leverage diversity

It’s critical to understand this diversity if we want to leverage it. Different theories of change explore different pathways of change, resonate with different people, and highlight different power relations. This is useful for social movements because we need as many people as possible; we can’t predict which pathways will be successful; and we need to build collective power within our movements and wider society while mitigating its negative effects.

We need diversity not only of tactics, but also of strategies and theories of change: Entrenched power must be addressed from all angles. We need people working in local councils and setting up workers’ coops just as much as we need people disrupting the status quo, challenging wrongful arrests, and even throwing soup at art! Just like the human body, we need different organs taking on different roles, but all working together. 

“No one way works, it will take all of us shoving at the thing from all sides to bring it down.” – Diane de Prima

Around these different approaches, different collective identities form. Collective identities are important for motivation and commitment – we often first develop a sense of belonging to a movement or organisation, identifying with its social and political causes only later. As sociologist Ziad W. Munson puts it, “commitment to an issue is often a consequence rather than a cause of activism”.

But strategic diversity also creates a challenge for cooperation – how do people who disagree on strategy work together?​​​​​​​ Cooperation and collective action cannot be designed top-down – they emerge from people’s interactions, from getting to know each other, doing small things together, and slowly building trust.

To understand social movement dynamics

Ecosystems go through lifecycles with a distinct pattern: Long periods of slow resource accumulation and transformation and of increasing connections are interspersed with short periods of release. The latter create opportunities for innovation because rigid connections break down and resources are released, ready to be reconfigured and adapted to a new context.

A good example is a natural wildfire raging through a woodland that took decades to develop. It changes the ecosystem dramatically, creating space and releasing nutrients for other species than before to thrive. The wildfire doesn’t destroy everything – some elements of the old woodland remain, like mature trees and seeds buried in the ground.

The result is a rejuvenated ecosystem with higher species richness and diversity than before the fire. Our movements go through similar phases of growing connections and power, followed by inevitable collapse, release and reorganisation.

Understanding social movements as ecosystems means accepting that their growth will be slow – and their collapse inevitable. It means seeing the value in releasing resources into the ecosystem: shutting down organisations, disbanding groups and ending campaigns to enable new and different configurations and connections to emerge.

And it means building for reorganisation: emphasising the compositional function of organisations and campaigns, i.e. building capabilities that can be transferred to and used by other organisations and campaigns. This way, collapse doesn’t mean that movements will lose all their capabilities and potential and must start from scratch every time.

Instead, they accumulate resources over several cycles – “potential that was developed and used in one setting but [is] available in transformed ones”, as ecologist C.S. Holling describes it. They keep the sketches, but use a blank canvas; they start afresh, but not from scratch.

To take complexity seriously

An ecosystem is not a machine. We cannot look at it like an engineer looks at a rocket. A rocket has a lot of moving parts, but they all follow a fixed blueprint, and if the engineer knows the parts and the plan, they can predict how the rocket will behave. This is an example of a complicated system.

Ecosystems, on the other hand, are complex. Even if we knew all of an ecosystem’s parts, we still couldn’t predict its behaviour because ecosystems don’t have a fixed blueprint. Their behaviour results from how their parts – plants and animals, bacteria and people, organisations and norms, ideas and money – interact, all following their own goals. They are living, complex systems that constantly evolve, move and act in unpredictable ways.

In other words, working in social movements and striving for social change means dealing with complex problems. The Cynefin framework defines how complex problems are fundamentally different from simple or complicated problems:

  • Simple problems are like baking a cake. You know the ingredients, you probably have the skills, and even if you don’t, you can follow some simple steps in a cookbook to help you out.

  • Complicated problems are like getting a human on the moon. It takes a lot of expertise and skill, but once you have done it, you can do it again by redoing the steps.

  • Complex problems are like raising a child. It needs constant learning and adaptation – you can’t raise every child the same way, and every stage of growing up is different. There are a lot of “unknown unknowns” – things you don’t know you don’t know, both through the child’s agency and environmental factors.

Intuitively, we know that the problems of movement building and social change are complex. Yet, we continue to use tools intended for complicated problems. An example is designing a strategy by defining the end goal and deriving a detailed plan for how to get there, regardless of our uncertainty about the strategic landscape we’ll be moving in.

Neither social movements nor creating change operate like machines – and yet we treat them as if they do. This is one of the reasons why social movement organisations often fail to deliver outcomes.

But what do other tools look like? How do we navigate the things we don’t know that we don’t know (the “unknown unknowns”)? How do we make sense of complexity? Movement ecology’s answer has three parts:

  • By using a variety of models: different lenses that help us deepen our understanding of specific aspects of complex systems such as social movements and society, e.g. power dynamics.

  • Through continuous learning and experimentation: developing, testing and constantly adapting theories of change and strategies to respond to an ever-changing environment.And by doing all of this together: sense-making has to be collective because we need a diversity of perspectives to see the whole picture. (Think the “blind people touching the elephant” parable.)

To understand power dynamics

To make sense of the world around us, we must understand power dynamics. This helps us understand how powerful actors and alliances can (to a certain extent) influence societal change to suit their interests – and why struggles to create more equity and justice are such an uphill battle.

One model we regularly use is hegemony theory, an approach to analysing and understanding the capacity of particular social groups to exploit and organise social change to their advantage.

Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams have used it to describe the neoliberal alliance between finance and big tech that has been the globally dominant power structure in the last few decades – and how this alliance is now in crisis, which creates new risks and opportunities.

Understanding the hegemonic crises around us, from the global to the local, is integral to figuring out which fissures in existing alliances to exploit, which groups to build collective power with, and which strategies to test.

To learn continuously

We can’t predict the behaviour of complex systems. When working for societal change, we have to continuously learn what works and what doesn’t. Maps, models and theories are only useful as tools for this ongoing exploration.

We also can’t control the behaviour of complex systems. We can’t change complex systems directly; we can only change their constraints, i.e., what is easy or hard for them to do. The systems will then react to these changes – by changing themselves. For example, you can’t control teenagers (try as you might!), you can only set ground rules you hope they don’t break, provide the conditions you think they’ll need to thrive, and then adapt to what seems to be working and what doesn’t.

Combining these two insights makes us look at strategy differently: not as developing and executing a blueprint, but as continuous exploration. We identify constraints to changes in which the system is sensitive, decide which of these constraints we think we can influence – and then design probes to test if we really can, how the system reacts, and if things are going in our desired direction. If they do, we scale up, if not, then we try something else.

This is how we learn to change society: by probing it, sensing its reaction, and responding appropriately. We make sense of things together; we adapt our maps, models, and strategies; we connect and build capacity; we act. We learn within and across movement cycles. And when the opportunity arises, we can come together and reconfigure our movements to make full use of both our accumulated resources and our agility to reorganise; and we can act as one.

Come home to radical hope

Movement ecology has shown us that there’s still a lot to play for, which provides us with hope. However, we need to learn lessons from the past and not be afraid to change tact. Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’ sheds some light on the path that lies ahead of us: "My own state of mind synthesises these two feelings and transcends them: my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and will power to overcome every obstacle" (December 1929). In other words, we must know where we stand, however dire it is, we must gain an accurate understanding of the political context we’re a part of in order to successfully change it; this is pessimism of the intellect. Optimism of the will, on the other hand, reminds us of Joanna Macy’s active hope: you only have cause to be optimistic if you’re using your will, that is, taking action. It is something that must be cultivated. At the Movement Ecology Collective, we support groups to develop a solid grounding in both. 

If you want to dive deeper into the topics, learn practical tools and build new connections with other changemakers,  join one of Linda and Lucas's workshops at the New Organising Conference, or join them in one of their movement ecology courses!

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