Polarities and the end of the age of sustainability: An Interview with Mary Stevens and Claire Mellier
With community organiser Mary Stevens and Citizen Assembly Facilitator Claire Mellier, we spoke about the importance of trust, good facilitation and inner work that allow us to fruitfully engage with polarities.
Thank you for joining our conversation today! Could both of you summarise for us your approach to sustainable lifestyle change? Who and what does your work focus on and what is your theory of change behind it?
Mary: I have a background as a systems practitioner and my approach depends on which perspective I take when I answer that question. If I answer for Friends of the Earth then we have a theory of change that is rooted in community organising. We aim to take people on a journey, standing alongside them, listening, building capacity, bringing knowledge and moving to action. A really good example is the community opposing fracking in the north of England that was already leading campaigns — our role was to work alongside them and support them over a sustained period, helping them join up and amplify their action.
The most effective tool for radical change is trust, in the context of common purpose and shared accountability. Within Friends of the Earth, I run our Experiments Programme. One project we have developed in collaboration with the social enterprise Enrol Yourself is a programme around sustainable finance with women as a core audience. They come together in small groups of 6 -10 and engage in peer-learning and coaching. We support them to create safe spaces where they talk about their visions of the future, their relationship to money and end up engaging in difficult conversations that build a sense of collective responsibility. At the heart of that approach is our belief that change happens in a social context.
Claire: I came to engaging with sustainable lifestyle change from a campaigning perspective. I started my first job for an environmental NGO in France, but that didn’t feel right. I needed a change and figured out that where my skills were most useful were in bringing people together and creating spaces for meaningful conversations on sustainability issues. This path took me away from France which had a very top-down decision making culture at the time. Things in the UK were more about dialogue, mutual understanding and finding consensus. That was what I was interested in — facilitating processes where I would not be the one speaking, but the one holding space for others to be heard.
My take on sustainable lifestyle change is influenced by my personal story. I studied politics and economics, a field where a lot of decisions were not conducive to sustainable lifestyle change and they were being made by the people in power and those who they attract. I came to realise that we are part of systems that are blocking the individual and collective change. In 2007, I met Anna Birney through a project on personal mobility with WWF UK. This triggered such a learning curve and a shift in me. I realised that to catalyse transformative change on transport issues, we needed to shift our perspectives towards personal mobility within one-planet limits. That’s when I started to think about systems change and what it could look like. This community of practice (Boundless Roots, editor’s note) has been amazing for that — it has helped me deepen my exploration of system change with other practitioners.
What does truly radical lifestyle change look like for you?
Mary: The age of sustainability is over. We live in a completely unbalanced system and need to think instead in terms of regenerative culture. Sustainability is the opposite of radical. The language of sustainability is about achieving a false balance and the word ‘lifestyle’ puts responsibility back on to the individual and frames it in a language of consumer choice. It feels superficial — it speaks to your way of dressing and the performance of the self. But radical change is not about buying or not buying things. The work that needs to be done is about the deeper changes. We need to look at structures and mental models for radical transformation. We have a fundamental need to reconnect to our human existence. When you start to understand yourself as part of the web of life, all your decisions start to flow from there.
Claire: This feels so true. It is why I used to describe myself as a campaigner, then sustainability practitioner and now as systems change practitioner. In my work, I witness the tension between individual and systemic change and how they get pitted against each other. But system change and individual behaviour change are two sides of the same coin. Decisions at the individual level are important but we also need to look at where the most impactful leverage points are to achieve change. The climate sceptics or deniers of the past have morphed into advocates of individual change, where the “do your bit” narrative is dominant, which aims to prevent people from really looking into systemic drivers and barriers of change. That’s where the radical lifestyle change will be.
You are both part of our inquiry group on polarities where we ask “How do we work skilfully across polarities?” Claire, where is your thought process in relation to this inquiry at the moment and in relationship to your work with citizens’ assemblies?
Claire: I used to think of polarities as something negative, as extreme perspectives which had to be reconciled somehow. I suppose that’s because of my consensus building background. But what I came to realise with Boundless Roots and talking to other practitioners is that polarities represent different qualities, where often we need both to create “balance” in the system. What is problematic is polarisation, not polarities. Opinion polarisation, in the sense of opinions becoming more extreme through discussion than they initially were, is a consequence of the fact that most people tend to discuss politics among like-minded individuals. This is what’s powerful about citizens’ assemblies: they bring together people who would normally never talk to each other. They burst the echo-chambers that are currently amplified by social media.
My current work with Climate Citizens’ Assemblies has brought to light the challenges we face when dealing with polarities during deliberation. There is not often the time to surface the deeply held beliefs and values that underpin positions. Despite the intention to overcome polarisation, these processes can be very controlled and to some extent can lead to well meaning consensus that fails to really address the root causes of some of the more polarised positions. It was interesting to see the contrast between France’s convention citoyenne and the citizens’ assemblies I have facilitated in the UK. In France, there were no conversation ground rules for instance — citizens were trusted to self-regulate and self-facilitate. Whereas in the UK, conversation guidelines were at the heart of the deliberation, such as “ One person speaking at a time; actively listen to each other; Give everyone time to talk”. I suspect there is something to do with cultural differences and the fact French people don’t like to be told how to behave! This is rich ground for exploration and I am just starting to scratch the surface.
Mary: What were the consequences in France?
Claire: I was an observer — researcher at the French Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat. I witnessed some fascinating conversations between citizens where polarities were expressed. For instance, a conversation which was not facilitated where one of the citizens, a lady in her late seventies, felt she was singled out as a result of expressing her views and decided to permanently leave the Convention in response to the situation. At the same time, I also witnessed non facilitated discussions which were very conducive of polarities being expressed and being resolved by the group without the help of facilitators in a way that built self efficacy for the participants. An example of a very confident 50-year old man and a shy 20-year old woman. She wanted to bring the need for system change” into the conversation but was being very timid. He said “Come on, open your chakra!” in a very straight-forward and kind way. She did open up and got to say what she wanted and she felt she had been heard and acknowledged. A trained facilitator would have probably never used that language and the conversation would have been different: much more mediated and potentially less conducive to polarities being expressed. But this is only anecdotal evidence. We need to do in depth research on this in future processes.
Mary: Thank you for sharing. There is a risk that dominant patterns fill the space if you don’t have ground rules. Rules can help create balance. I have an example from my own practice where I have been working on a project to reduce the speed and volume of traffic on my street. It can get hugely controversial and emotional as soon as you are talking about constraints on mobility. I facilitated a community meeting with about thirty people. There were local politicians and older residents who are used to doing things the traditional way. Everybody was sitting in a circle and for the majority it was the first time they’d met like this. In the space we created they were able to negotiate a conversation about lifestyle change when most of them never thought of how things could be different.
Mary, how is this inquiry showing up in your work and personal life, what are the main insights, challenges and questions that have come up for you?
Mary: Claire and I have more in common than we knew: I also studied politics in France, for example! Hearing Claire saying she is not a campaigner at heart makes me think of the very real tension between urgency and depth. On one side there are people who do identify as campaigners, saying we need to act now to counter the ecological and climate crisis. This urgency is real and scary and there is a lot of work to be done, especially because it has been left so late. On the other side there are those who build from the ground up, fostering people’s sense of connection and taking them on a journey. Their work isn’t about big campaigning and political asks but the question of what it looks like to care for nature in the places where we are. Do we have the time to “waste” to engage with leaves and birds in our garden or do we need to focus all of our attention on changing our patterns of consumption that are responsible for so much habitat destruction? One thing that happened for me emotionally doing this inquiry is that it helped me to no longer identify these polarities as negative or positive but more as something that just is, and that merits exploration.
At the same time some polarities are quite destructive. What we don’t talk about as much as we should is how polarities can be an amplifying effect of social media. When I speak to people face to face in my neighbourhood they are invariably polite and nuanced, even if they disagree. If you put people behind a screen there is so much more anger. Finally, a personal polarity that I oscillate between is the desire to step in and lean into conflict and wanting to quickly step out, move on, not being able to deal with it. I haven’t worked my way through this yet.
Claire: The desire to step in and out of conflict resonates so much! For many years my impulse was to fix conflicts and bridge polarities as I was not comfortable with them. Only in the last few years I have found that personal deeper work, through embodied practices, have been truly transformative. My ability to work across polarities really grew and I am so much more comfortable because I feel more at ease with polarities myself. Without the inner work I would be stuck. This type of work, about trauma and grief is so critical when working with polarities. I am keen to explore that more.
What polarities are alive for you at this moment?
Mary: I would like to see the emerging polarity between people who are and aren’t equipped to envision desirable futures being explored further. To have the freedom to vision requires a whole lot of prerequisites. Rob Hopkins speaks about the ‘ingredients’ required for the imagination to flourish: low levels of inequality, being liberated from immediate survival and having access to creative practice and inspiration. So this ability is not available to people who are experiencing a lot of stress. What is the work that we need to do to support people to envision a different future? There is a polarity between those only able to envision short-term horizons and those who have the luxury of thinking long-term. What would the operating model for environmental movements look like that takes both groups into account?
Claire: What is present for me is the exploration of the otherness or the polarity within our own community or society, in countries like France or the UK, where we still have pretty similar value sets or belief systems. I am interested in what polarities look like at the global scale, when bringing citizens from different parts of the world to discuss the climate and ecological emergency. What do polarities look like in that context? For instance, when people come with very different forms of knowledge and different understanding of what science is. For instance the wisdom from indigenous people who constitute only 4% of the world’s population but are the ancestral guardians of 80% of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity. What does polarity look like when you bring together these wisdom keepers with westerners?
Do you want to share some final thoughts on your overall experience in the Boundless Roots?
Mary: I’ve really valued the space to have conversations like this and others! I am almost a bit overwhelmed by the amount of resources and expertise in the network and feel I am not really doing them justice. It has taken me some time to start to understand the process and I am appreciating it more and more. Each time I come back to my inquiry, I feel enriched by all the community.
Claire: For me it was the serendipity of the community that was surprising. I saw this one tweet about Boundless Roots from Anna Birney and thought this sounds like what I need. The connections I made have been so enriching. Before I joined Boundless Roots, I felt quite isolated as a freelance consultant. Going forward it would be amazing to continue building the relationships.
Thank you both for the inspiring conversation!
Mary Stevens is the Experiments Programme Manager at Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) where she brings to life new ideas that can help tackle the climate and nature emergencies and reconnect our communities. Recent projects included developing a peer-learning programme for women to take climate action with their personal finances, and developing the tools to unlock land for tree-planting and nature regeneration. Her previous experience includes six years in UK central government policy and three years leading the UK government team working on building local level resilience to flooding.
Claire Mellier is a facilitator and researcher with over 15 years’ experience designing and delivering deliberative processes on sustainability issues.
She was a facilitator of the Climate Assembly UK and was part of a group of accredited researchers observing the French Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat. She currently works with the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation (CAST) at Cardiff University, on a comparative study between the French and UK Assemblies. She is also supporting the development of a global citizens’ assembly on the climate and ecological emergency.
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