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Resisting change: understanding obstacles to social progress

The People’s Climate Movement, made up of dozens of organizations working to fight the climate crisis, held their first march in September 2014. On Saturday, 29 April, activists will once again march to demand climate action. As they protest the Trump administration’s drastic approach to climate change, the People’s Climate Movement will aim to “show the world and our leaders that we will resist attacks on our people, our communities and our planet.”

In this shortened excerpt from How Change Happens, Duncan Green, Oxfam Great Britain’s Senior Strategic Adviser, discusses the complexities behind social activism, and breaks down the underlying factors that fuel the resistance to change.

Systems, whether in thought, politics, or the economy, can be remarkably resistant to change. I like to get at the root of the “i-word” (inertia) through three other “i-words”: institutions, ideas, and interests. A combination of these often underlies the resistance to change, even when evidence makes a compelling case.

Institutions: Sometimes the obstacle to change lies in the institutions through which decisions are made or implemented. Even when no one in particular benefits materially from defending the status quo, management systems and corporate culture can be powerful obstacles to change. Although I love Oxfam dearly, I also wrestle with its institutional blockages, including multi-layered processes of sign-off and a tendency to make decisions in ever-expanding loops of emails where it is never clear who has the final say. I guess I need to work on my internal power analysis.

Ideas: Often inertia is rooted in the conceptions and prejudices held by decision makers, even when their own material interest is not at risk. In Malawi, researchers found that ideas about ‘the poor’—the ‘deserving’ vs. the ‘undeserving’ poor—had a significant impact on individuals’ readiness to support cash transfers to people living in poverty. The elites interviewed—which included civil society, religious leaders, and academics as well as politicians, bureaucrats, and private sector leaders—all believed that redistributive policies make the poor lazy (or lazier). The overwhelming evidence for the effectiveness of cash transfers made no difference; neither did the fact that the elites stand to lose little from such reforms (and could even gain electorally, in the case of politicians).

People's_Climate_March_Melbourne_21_Sept_2014
People’s Climate March in Melbourne. View down Bourke St from the top of Parliament House steps as the march turns into Spring St. Photo by Takver from Australia. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I witnessed the obstructive power of ideas during my brief spell working in DFID’s International Trade Department. We received a visit from a senior official at the Treasury, worried that we were going off message. Radiating the suave self-assurance of a Whitehall mandarin, he informed us that, while he was happy to discuss UK trade policy, we should first agree that there were certain ‘universal truths’, namely that trade liberalization leads to more trade; more trade leads to less poverty. Both claims were highly debatable, but no-one was going to change the mandarin’s habit of regurgitating what he had learned at university some decades back. I recalled Keynes’ wonderful line: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Not much room for evidence-based policy making there. It is always possible, of course, that madmen in authority can be persuaded to change their minds, but it is uphill work: a steady drip-drip of contrary evidence, public criticism, pressure from their peers, and exposure to failures and crises all help. In the end, I fear that really deep-rooted ideas only change with generational turnover.

Interests: The writer Upton Sinclair once remarked “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Powerful players who stand to lose money or status from reform can be very adept at blocking it. Especially when a small number of players stand to lose a lot, whereas a large number of players stand to gain a little, the blockers are likely to be much better organized than the proponents. Billions of people could benefit from a reduction in carbon emissions that reduces the threat of climate change, but they will have to overcome opposition from a handful of fossil fuel companies first.

Interests are not always malign—after all, a great deal of progressive social change comes from poor people fighting for their own interests. Nor are interests always material. Masood Mulk, who runs the Sarhad Rural Support Programme in Pakistan, told me a wonderful story that harks back to the importance of psychology and personal relations:

I remember a valley where all the poor united to build the road, which they believed would change their lives totally. Unfortunately the road had to pass through the land of a person who had once been powerful in the valley, and he was totally unwilling to allow it. Frustrated, the villagers asked me to come to the valley and go to his house to resolve the problem. It was a remote place so we flew in a helicopter. For hours I tried to persuade him to be generous and give his permission but he would not budge. He did not like the way the communities behaved now that they were powerful. In the end he said he would relent, but only if we would fly around his house three times in the helicopter. I realized that it was all about egos. The villagers were unwilling to go to him because their pride did not allow it, and he was not willing to concede to them unless he could reemphasize his importance

In recent years, the glacial pace of progress on climate change illustrates all three i’s to a depressing extent: vested interests lobby to frustrate attempts to reduce carbon emissions and support spurious “science” to throw mud at the evidence that underpins the call for action; an unshakable belief in the value of economic growth limits any attempts to imagine a “beyond-growth” approach to the economy; and global institutions governed by national politicians with short time horizons are poorly suited to solving the greatest collective action problem in history.

Studying and understanding that force field is an essential part of trying to influence change. Though largely invisible to the newcomer, power sets parameters on how social and political relationships evolve. Who are likely allies or enemies of change? Who are the uppers and lowers in this relationship? Who listens or defers to whom? How have they treated each other in the past?

Starting with power should induce a welcome sense of optimism about the possibilities for change. Many of the great success stories in human progress—universal suffrage, access to knowledge, freedom from sickness, oppression and hunger, are at their root, a story of the progressive redistribution of power.

Featured image credit: “People’s Climate March” by Alejandro Alvarez. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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