Rage, rage against the dying of the light…

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

Groups die. Networks die. Movements die. It’s meant to happen. It’s part of a natural cycle and we should embrace it rather than rage against it. Why? Because like most cycles it has its own rebirth built in to the process, so it’s not really death after all, just change. That’s not to say that change cannot feel as difficult, even as traumatic, as a death.

Why these rather sombre thoughts? I started this post soon after Climate Camp’s decision not to hold the annual mass gathering in 2011 and it’s sat in our drafts folder for months. I had a couple of conversations over Friday and Saturday that turned my mind back to the topic of the life cycle of campaigns and campaigning movements.

There are many people out there who spend a lot of their time and effort trying to prevent groups from dying. Some of them are formal “capacity builders” employed or volunteering for an NGO. Others are just group members trying to keep their campaign going. They support groups to recruit and retain members, to try new processes that make the group more open and give it more chance of a long life. It’s a large part of our work here at Rhizome, too. That’s because groups are fragile even if they don’t always appear to be, and they can fall prey to a whole host of diseases that cause untimely death: lack of clear and shared leadership, poor process that excludes potential members, lack of resources, burnout of core people, and much more. But given the right conditions they can thrive, grow and set their own seed.

Sometimes our capacity builders (formal and informal) are left waiting for a group to die. To say that they will the group to do so would be unkind, but every network has groups that are not moving with the times, are stagnating, and are an obstacle to new energy emerging in that town, city or region. What do you do?

It’s a bit like the mature tree that blocks light to the forest floor preventing saplings getting enough light to thrive. Sometimes good forest management requires us to fell the old and diseased trees to let new ones grow in their place. The old tree has done its work. Year after year of leaf-fall has created a rich humus on the forest floor. Its roots have broken up the hard soil. New groups can grow in its place feeding off the composting wood. Nothing about the old-timer is wasted. Without the old tree the soil wouldn’t have been enriched to the point at which a new tree could establish quickly and healthily. But do we wait or do we wield the axe?

Before wielding an axe, I’d encourage capacity builders to check their assumptions and ensure that perception and reality are the same. I’ve seen too many organisations making assumptions about the vigour of a group based on factors such as the age of the participants. I’ve seen too many solvable group dynamics issues presented as wider social “problems” – ‘young activists don’t want to work alongside older activists’, ‘people give up activism after university and only come back to it later in life when their kids are older’. When you dig down it’s often more a case of the way we hold meetings fails to attract and retain people. Especially as within the same network or movement there are usually plenty of groups that contradict the assumptions. What’s needed is sometimes just minor tree-surgery and not wholesale tree felling. However sometimes groups aren’t able to be receptive to the changes that would solve their problems….

There’s a similar pattern to the growth of activist movements and NGOs. Movements start small, young, vigorous, supple, eager for growth. Just breaking through the soil with a first action, first media story, first substantial donation can seem almost unbelievable. But those that survive the early stages often start to lignify, to become established like a tree or woody shrub. And from here on in there is tension. For some this is the aim – to have more heft, more gravitas, more pull in the world. Bigger is better if you want to stand head and shoulders above the top of the forest canopy. Others find this establishment an affront to their vision for youthful vigorous action. The dizzy heights of the canopy are too far from the forest floor where the real action happens.

And this struggle is not always pleasant. There can be bad feeling on both sides. I think the bigger picture is that the two are intimately entwined. Some plants need to develop to a certain stage before they can produce viable seed. Some plants send out runners which soon establish themselves and the connecting rhizome or stolon rots away leaving them independent, though genetically linked. Others grow from the crown out – each year another layer of young growth is added to the outside of the plant whilst the centre of the crown slowly loses its vigour.

Of course there are other plant life cycles that are relevant here such as those of many annual plants that live short and often colourful lives ending with the self-sowing of thousands of seed. Each has its own delivery mechanism for the seed – pods that burst and scatter the seed, seed designed to be picked up in the wind and so on. No-one can dictate where the seed lands. And maybe that’s important. Though often of course we try to control the cycle – extend the naturally short but spectacular life, control precisely where the seed is sown and so on. Perhaps we shouldn’t?

So what, if anything, can we learn?

  • That one of the roles of a movement is to spark new movements.
  • That the tension is natural, even desirable – it’s part of the life cycle.
  • That sometimes we need to let light down to the forest floor or ignite a forest fire to create the conditions for new seeds to germinate.
  • That however much we admire the majestic forest canopy nothing lasts for ever, nor should it.
  • That there’s a debt of gratitude owed to a dead or dying group or movement – it’s enriched the soil for new growth.
  • That we shouldn’t rely on Dylan Thomas for movement-building advice.
  • That it’s OK to burst onto the scene spectacularly and fade away equally as quickly as long as we have a mechanism for sowing some seeds in that time, preferably far and wide. Longevity isn’t everything.
  • That maybe we try to control the growth and spread of movements too much instead of focusing on preparing the soil so that wherever a seed lands its chances of germination are improved.
  • That you can stretch a metaphor just a little too far.