When people become ‘climate aware’, if they are not part of an engaged community, feelings of powerlessness can easily lead to frustration, despair and depression.
‘Agency’ is the ability to act or have an effect. In sociology, it is contrasted with the social structures that shape people’s actions. A subjective sense of agency is a major factor in wellbeing. Individuals experience agency, or the lack of it, in very different ways depending on personality, culture, social position and other circumstances. It can include being able to influence the course of our own lives, make things or shape events. It is bound up with our relatedness to human and non-human others and so our ability to influence them or resist being influenced by them, and to act with them or independently of them (Burkitt, 2016).
Limitations on agency in the climate crisis
Surveys generally show high public concern about climate change, but low uptake of actions to address it. People’s agency is limited by the scientific and political complexity of the climate crisis, by the diversity of advocated responses and by controversy about what is worth doing. High carbon lifestyles are ‘locked-in’ by social and other influences. Considerable personal agency is needed to behave contrary to norms such as eating meat, driving or flying. That includes developing knowledge and narratives that justify non-conforming choices, and being able to cope with their emotional and social implications.
Rational actors, influencing and messaging
Scientists and NGOs have mostly assumed that, given the right information, people would do the right thing. Communicators would impart ‘the truth’, influencing audiences to adopt low-carbon choices. This assigns agency to the communicators and passivity to the audience. Some campaigners have moved on from this ‘information deficit model’ but there is still a search for the right way to influence people, rather than to support them in finding their own agency.
Community and relational agency
When people become ‘climate aware’, if they are not part of an engaged community, feelings of powerlessness can easily lead to frustration, despair and depression. On the other hand, identifying with a group engaged with ecological crisis does increase people’s agency – sustaining pro-environmental behaviours, or gaining influence in the wider system. They also report improved well-being through congruency of their actions, values and identities (Veenhoeven et al, 2016).
Organising for collective agency
There is increasing adoption of organisational structures that respect individual agency while cultivating collective agency – for example, in Extinction Rebellion’s ‘self-organising system’. Activists are learning from management schools, with ideas about ‘learning organisations’, listening leadership and congruence of practices with espoused values (Wheatley, 2005; Argyris and Schön, 1996).
Activism has also been strongly influenced by spiritual and faith-based approaches to nonviolence, for instance via resources and practices shared through the Movement for a New Society (Green et al, 1994). Spiritual activism can involve work on self-awareness and self-relinquishment in focusing on ‘right action’ and non-attachment to outcomes. Rather than pushing or directing, this implies sensitive responsiveness, nurturing the conditions for things to happen and then ‘flowing like water’.
Burkitt, I., (2016). Relational agency: relational sociology, agency and interaction. European Journal of Social Theory, 2016, vol. 19(3), 322-339.
Venhoeven, L.A., Bolderdijk, J.W. and Steg, L. (2016). Why acting environmentally-friendly feels good: exploring the role of self-image. Frontiers in Psychology, November 2016, vol. 7, article 1846.
Argyris, C. and Schön, D.A. (1996). Organisational learning II: theory, method and practice. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
Wheatley, M.J. (2005). Finding our way: leadership for an uncertain time. San Francisco, CA: Berett-Koehler.
Green, T., Woodrow, P. and Peavey, F. (1994). Insight and action: how to discover and support a life of integrity and commitment to change. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.