‘Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World’ by Jamie Bartlett takes readers on an engaging journey back to the tumultuous world of 2016, a seemingly distant era pre-Covid, Trump and Brexit. This thought-provoking book delves into various ‘radical’ movements, with Bartlett immersing himself within these groups as they traverse the globe, disseminating their message and orchestrating impactful actions.
This book review is written by Robyn Gulliver. Robyn is a multi-award winning environmentalist, writer and researcher who has served as an organiser and leader of numerous local and national environmental organisations. Born in New Zealand, she has spent the last decade advocating for and writing about environmental issues for activist groups, local councils, not-for-profit organisations and academia.
Initially, I found myself perplexed by Bartlett’s broad definition of ‘radical,’ encompassing individuals ranging from far-right anti-Islam activists and capitalist-anarchist libertarians to psychedelic drug users and climate activists. He began the book with a chapter on Zoltan Istvan and the transhumanists. Inclusion of techno-humanists who implant chips in their skulls as radicals seemed antiquated, particularly as millions of people rely on hearing aids and cochlear implants, while bionic limbs and thought controlled body extensions look increasingly possible. Does one man travelling on a bus illegally running for US President constitute a movement either? Similarly, I wondered how climate activists could be considered radical, rather than the voice of reason even back in 2016.
Nevertheless, Bartlett skilfully and empathetically explores the ideas and values of these individuals striving to reshape the world, deftly drawing connections between the radicals’ eccentric notions and the commonplace norms of everyday life.
His unifying concept seems to be that radicalism can be either in ideas or actions, but just must deviate from the majority norm at any one time.
In fact, he highlights the rationality of climate activists in contrast to the ‘radicalism’ of their direct action protests. He also uses this concept of radical ideas to drawing parallels between outlandish projects such as assertion of the ‘sovereignty’ of the ‘Free Republic of Liberland’ declared by a Swedish right-libertarian politician Vít Jedlička and the prospective digital future smashing the physical borders enforced by nation-states.
Is a Climate Activist a ‘Radical’?
Bartlett offers a remarkably perceptive perspective on climate activists, immersing himself in their world by participating in a large-scale mine occupation in 2016 and spending time with new groups protesting fracking across communities in the United Kingdom. While I occasionally found myself questioning the level of sympathy he extended to certain characters in his book, such as neo-Nazis, his portrayal of climate activists remained nuanced and fair. As someone who approaches commentary on activists with a healthy dose of caution, always vigilant against stereotypes and dismissals, I was pleasantly surprised to find none of that here.
In a similar vein, the term ‘radical’ often carries a derogatory undertone, wielded with a hint of scorn or condescension. Yet, throughout the chapter, it becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend why Bartlett perceives climate activism as radical at all. He wholeheartedly joins the protests, advocates for more direct action, and concludes the chapter with a heartfelt plea for greater civil resistance as the sole means by which we can combat the forces seeking to ravage our planet into oblivion.
The Activist Paradox
By immersing himself in the world of activists, Bartlett provides an intriguing “outsider’s” perspective on climate activism culture.
One crucial aspect he highlights is what he terms the “activist paradox” – a conundrum wherein activist groups aim to attract a larger number of individuals to participate in more radical actions but inadvertently create subcultures that can discourage and marginalise potential supporters.
During his time at the protest camp prior to the Ffos-y-fran coal-mine action in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales in 2016, Bartlett observed several amusing examples of this phenomenon.
He noticed shared behaviours, such as finger-wagging and arm-crossing utilised for “consensus-based decision making.” He also observed shared norms, including the pretence of an anti-hierarchical structure.
Bartlett astutely recognized the evident problem of the lack of diversity within the camp, even as activists themselves acknowledged the issue. This lack of diversity further contributed to the subculture, despite activists recognizing its importance.
Bartlett acknowledged that activists were genuinely concerned about this problem but struggled to determine effective solutions. As one activist candidly stated, “We worry a lot about it, but we haven’t quite figured it out.”
Bartlett identifies two key issues in addressing this problem. First, many individuals simply cannot afford to participate in these types of risky protests. Second, the norms and identities of activists can inadvertently alienate others. He humorously lists various words used by activists, each carrying its own cultural meaning signalling membership within the activist in-group. Terms like “space” (referring to any room for a meeting), “action” (indicating any protest activity), “intersectionality” (denoting the link between various issues), and “social licence” (assessing whether a company has community approval) may be commonplace now, but Bartlett’s analysis sheds light on how language can contribute to a potentially alienating subculture.
However, despite pointing out these potential barriers, Bartlett also offers insightful descriptions of how direct action camps and groups can function effectively. He highlights the aversion to traditional leadership structures, promoting processes that distribute responsibilities and activities. While consensus-based decision making can be an excellent method for fostering engagement, Bartlett points out that it can also become unquestioned and assumed, leading to a mild obsession with procedure and language rather than achieving tangible results.
Those seeking to get involved in activism may find themselves confronted with unfamiliar language and behaviours that they may struggle to navigate.
Overall, Bartlett’s exploration of the activist paradox and the challenges within climate activism culture provides a thought-provoking analysis. He recognizes the need to address these issues to create a more inclusive movement – and the challenge in actually doing so – while offering interesting insights into the processes which can both unit and divide us into our own little sub-cultural bubbles.
NIMBYISM: A Solution for Growing the Movement?
Bartlett presents a compelling example of how we can transcend potentially exclusionary subcultures within activist movements through the story of the ‘Nanas Against Fracking’ group. This grassroots movement emerged in 2016 and led to a powerful protest in Blackpool, where 26 people from Lancashire occupied a field to voice their opposition to the threat of fracking by Cuadrilla. Bartlett argues that protests of this nature often stem from NIMBYISM (‘not in my backyard’), as people respond more readily to local issues that directly impact their lives, tapping into emotions of grievance and injustice, which are known to motivate individuals to become activists.
One of Bartlett’s key points is that the perception of activists engaging in direct action protests like Ffos-y-fran differs from that of local groups such as the Nanas.
New activists – he argues – may feel more included and develop a stronger sense of identity when joining local groups.
However, while the success of the Nanas in challenging Cuadrilla was remarkable, I question whether Bartlett’s argument regarding exclusionary subcultures is not something prevalent in all movements, networks or large formal or informal organisations.
Does the name ‘Nanas’ itself indicate the specific identity of a person invited to join? Instead, I believe Bartlett may be hinting at how diverse identity groups and a variety of action types within a movement can overcome sub-cultures and stereotypes.
They attract individuals with diverse identities and interests, offering them a range of actions that align with a diversity of comfort levels and personal theories of change.
In this regard, the current Australian environmental movement serves as an example of growth and influence. New groups seeking to attract diverse identities have emerged at a rapid pace (e.g., Children’s Book Creators for Climate Action, Frontrunners, and AFL Players for Climate Action). Groups which offer different action types are expanding continuously: from working within an organisation (e.g., Better Futures); imagining new economies (New Economy Network); targeting an industry (Move Beyond Coal); and producing climate related performance art (Climacts). It is this innovative diversity of groups and tactics that represents the true radical nature of climate activism to me.
While most of Bartlett’s chapters conclude with a sense of the daunting challenges faced by radicals in achieving their goals, there is also a begrudging admiration for their resilience in the face of repeated failures.
In many ways, the book serves as an ode to the arduous experiences of being a radical in a conformist world rather than an endorsement of any specific radical ideas proposed within its pages.
It also underscores our inclination to follow leaders and seek inspiration from them as a source of ideas. Instead, it is likely better to look to our fellow activists for learnings and the history books for ideas if we want to build power. Either way, Barlett’s journey alongside both admirable and abhorrent activists was absorbing and insightful. As I concluded the book, I felt a deep sense of gratitude towards past climate activists and a renewed recognition of the transformative power of radical ideas in shaping our collective future.
- Activism - Culture
- Activism - Paradox
- Direct action - Non violent NVDA
- Movements_Campaigns - Climate action and justice