Margaret Blay’s Mt Eden Climate Action Group has a mailing list of over 70 but only four members who are active. They run a monthly street stall in the inner Auckland suburb. Margaret describes her motivations for setting up MECAG.
“It takes ONE committed person to get started. I started MECAG because I believe the climate change issue can be very daunting and overwhelming. It can seem too huge to deal with, so many people just dismiss it. With my experience in the nuclear-free movement of the 80s, I knew that talking face to face can help people understand that we can achieve a lot if only we work TOGETHER. Remember, THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY. It’s a global crisis, but we work locally to solve it in small achievable chunks.
“STREET STALLS are a good way to approach locals directly. And they’re not that difficult. You’ll need a card table or something similar in reasonable condition, with a large sign giving the name of your group, plus a tidy arrangement of info sheets and maybe some colourful literature from several like-minded groups like Greenpeace and 350 AOTEAROA.
“It’s most important to stay good-humoured if anyone is hostile. And I think it’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy to debate whether humans are causing climate change. If you were sick, would you believe 98% of specialists or 2%?”
In 2015 Margaret wrote this article for Te Awa, linking her experiences as an activist during the anti-nuclear campaign with the difficulties faced by those working today on climate change.
Climate change: the nuclear-free legacy .
(Reprinted from Te Awa, the newsletter of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, Issue 46, May 2015.)
I first heard the term psychic numbing from Dr Helen Caldicott, the Australian paediatrician based in the US. She was visiting Aotearoa/New Zealand as part of an international tour against nuclear arms in 1982.
People world-wide were finding it difficult or impossible to confront the issue of nuclear war, she said, because we were experiencing psychic numbing – a sense of powerlessness in the face of an overwhelming problem – the prospect of nuclear extinction.
Today, there's that same sense of powerlessness when it comes to climate change – a huge and frightening problem that feels beyond the means of us individuals to solve.
But we can overcome that paralysis and channel it into action.
‘think globally and act locally’
The way out of psychic numbing, Caldicott said, is to recognise that you can’t do much on your own. But many people acting together can achieve huge things.
You can tackle the problem by acting primarily in your community, talking directly to friends and acquaintances.
We found that seemingly meaningless or symbolic actions, like declaring our houses nuclear-free, could have vast repercussions. Gradually more and more localities went nuclear-free, led by individuals and spreading to schools, churches, councils, and organisations of all kinds. Cars, bags and clothes proudly wore nuclear-free stickers and logos.
We staffed stalls, wrote to MPs, the Prime Minister, local and international newspapers. We brought the issue forcefully to public attention, causing some arguments along the way. A man shouted at us in those Cold War days, “You’re all Communists!” We weren’t pro-USSR, we were just pro-peace.
Lessons from the nuclear-free movement
It’s true that the historical context was unlike today’s. The mass movement against the Springbok tour in 1981 opened the door for change and the peace movement.
Then we got thirty years of monetarism. Today the internet isolates people as much as it connects. The media often work to dumb us down. There’s overwork or maybe no job at all; competition rather than cooperation; attack politics which turns people off.
But we can still build communities who can achieve more together than the sum of their parts.
People around the world are uniting to stop fracking under their homes. There are moves to divest from fossil fuels, and unusual alliances to stop oil pipelines from being constructed across ranches and indigenous territories.
Where do we go from here?
It’s important that we talk to people who may seem apathetic about climate change. The basis of effective action for many of us remains the same as it did in the 80s: the personal approach.
That’s why, in Mount Eden, we’re forming a neighbourhood climate action group like the peace groups of the 80s, to hold street stalls, talk to our neighbours, and join with other groups and individuals to lobby.