An invitation to psychologically smart, action-focussed politics
By John Bunzl and Nick Duffell
At a time when the human propensity for ostrich-like behaviour is becoming perilous, we owe a massive debt to the Extinction Rebellion movement (XR) for putting climate change onto the headlines. This raising of consciousness has been essential, allowing the notion of ‘climate emergency’ to enter the vocabulary.
Such a trick of moving attention can be the start of changing the game. In our book, The Simpol Solution: Solving Global Problems Could Be Easier Than We Think, we call this the ‘Rumpelstiltskin Factor’: only once we find a word or phrase for a problem can we come into a proper relationship with it; and then actually do something about it.
Action, seen through a psychological lens, is a function of will, which is consciousness’s twin in the psyche. But acting has a different and complementary function to awareness. In the political world — and especially in this emergency — we need both. In fact, XR now needs a coherent political strategy to complement its civil disobedience strategy if governments are to be driven to take the necessary action. That’s because civil disobedience can only take you so far, especially with inherently global issues like climate change.
A political strategy is vital because, by definition, civil disobedience campaigns oppose the existing political order, which in turn ends up cracking down on the disobedience. And psychologically, this tit-for-tat cycle tends to maintain in the protesters a rather rigid rebellious identity at the expense of going for achievable solutions.
It’s important to understand this oppositional thinking, especially in the light of Greta Thunberg. Dr Diana Georgescu suggests that Thunberg divides opinion due to ‘deep-seated beliefs that childhood is an age of innocence and being dependent on adults.’ It is very appealing to divide the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or, in the case of Thunbergian climate emergency, into a rigid, over-simplified expression that yells: ‘We are the good children and you are the bad parents — make our world better — NOW!’
Even when we feel its emotional relevance, such polarisation rarely encourages action in the political world. And worse: within the human psyche, it has been shown to be one of the most uncreative ways to use our phenomenal mental equipment, the result of millions of years of evolution.
Politically, crying for action through civil disobedience in a democracy risks being labelled anti-democratic unless it also takes form in a political party and stands for election. Pragmatically, adversarial tactics alone don’t necessarily reap long-term rewards and are bound to end up alienating the public, just as France’s Gillets Jaunes did within only nine months. National democracies also serve to channel public opinion up to governments. They may not do this well but their existence means that any entity trying to compete for that role, such as the Citizens Assemblies that XR calls for, can only ever be advisory.
No, we need much more smart thinking to get out of the mess we’re in. In fact, XR and other activist groups concerned with global issues need a tool that works within existing structures (which is the real definition of ‘now’) and yet compels governments to act in cooperation through democratic means.
Rooted in cooperation and inclusion, the Simultaneous Policy (SIMPOL) campaign could be just such a tool and is already in operation. Voters who have joined it are using their right to vote in a completely new way to pressure political candidates of any party to implement SIMPOL, a raft of far-reaching solutions to climate change and other urgent problems that require international cooperation.
SIMPOL functions as a kind of ‘Election Rebellion’. Instead of choosing between the political parties, SIMPOL turns that on its head. Its supporters simply agree to ‘give strong voting preference in all future national elections to politicians or parties that have signed a pledge to implement SIMPOL simultaneously alongside other governments, to the probable exclusion of those who choose not to sign’. This pledge commits a politician, party or government to implement SIMPOL’s policies alongside other governments. In this simple way, politicians who sign enhance their electoral chances, while those who refuse risk losing our votes to politicians who signed instead. So, as support for SIMPOL grows in any electoral constituency, all main political parties come under increasing pressure to sign the SIMPOL Pledge. To further enhance the pressure on politicians, SIMPOL never divulges how many supporters it has in any electoral area, so politicians are left to wonder — and worry!
In the UK, where SIMPOL is most developed, over 650 candidates from all the main political parties signed the Pledge at the last national election in 2017. Of those, 65 became Members of Parliament (MPs), which is about 10% of all UK MPs. Comparable results are being achieved in other countries too. Also, in closely contested electoral areas, a kind of ‘domino effect’ comes into play: as one candidate signs the Pledge, his competitors, one after another, feel obliged to follow, resulting in nearly all the competing candidates signing up as election day approaches. This means that whichever candidate wins the seat, SIMPOL is sure to gain another MP committed to implementing its global policy agenda. Imagine, then, how many MPs across the world could be added if XR’s many thousands of supporters took up the SIMPOL tool?
SIMPOL’s unique advantage is that, without needing either to be a political party or to support one, it gets inside national electoral processes, thereby cutting across the whole party structure. Because it works through existing electoral systems without being enmeshed in them, it cannot be accused of being undemocratic. If XR joined in, they could continue to use civil disobedience but additionally in the service of driving politicians and governments to support the global problem-solving policies that SIMPOL is developing and that XR could contribute to. In this sense, SIMPOL already functions as a Citizen’s Assembly but because it works through national electoral processes with a powerful voting strategy, its outcomes are binding on politicians. SIMPOL does not ask or advise, it compels.
From the philosophical or spiritual perspective XR espouses — that we are all one and all in this together — SIMPOL offers XR a way to go beyond blaming and shaming politicians and governments towards a form of politics that ‘transcends, negates and includes’ them, to use philosopher Ken Wilber’s terminology. It is that which fulfils evolution’s purpose that we become a consciously self-regulating species, accountable to and in service of our extraordinary environment.
 Bunzl, J & Duffell, N (2018) The Simpol Solution: A New Way to Think About the World’s Biggest Problems, Amherst NY, Prometheus and (2017) London, Peter Owen.
 Dr Diana Georgescu, Lecturer at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, retrieved from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2019/oct/opinion-greta-thunberg-highlights-problematic-way-both-right-and-left-view-child-activists 3/11/19
 Wilber, K. (1995) Sex Ecology and Spirit: The Spirit of Evolution, Boston: Shambhala.