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The vital role for the community sector in the fight against climate change

“Charities need to become more like businesses.”

How many times have we in the community sector heard this claim? Perhaps we have even made this claim ourselves. I would be the first to admit that many charitable organisations are not well run and would make much greater impact if their work was more focused. Nevertheless, I believe that we should both resist this claim and strongly argue the exact opposite.

Accepting this claim diminishes and devalues what we do. We are reduced to the ‘third sector’ (the bronze medallists) or the ‘voluntary sector’ (our work is free and optional). Our work is rendered in purely economic terms: “By running our projects, we saved the state £20 for each £1 invested.” “Volunteers saved us more than £1 million last year.” We know our work is far more important than this - it saves lives, communities, and entire environments.

Turning now to climate change, we may have only 8.5 years to keep global temperatures below 1.5°C of warming. Thereafter, we’ll pass a tipping point where a series of environmental ‘vicious circles’ will kick in and overwhelm our ability to make meaningful changes. It’ll be a downward trajectory of extreme weather events, mass extinctions of species, poisoned air, severe shortage of drinking water, rising sea levels, and uninhabitable land.

Jason Hickel (The Guardian, 5/11/16) wrote, “When it comes to global warming, we know that the real problem is the logic of endless growth that is built into our economic system. If we don’t keep the global economy growing by at least 3% per year, it plunges into crisis. Rapid climate change is the most obvious symptom of this contradiction. It was unthinkable to say this even 10 years ago, but today, it seems all too clear: our economic system is incompatible with life on this planet.”

C J Polychroniou (Al-Jazeera, 20/08/16) said, “Unless we are willing to stand idly by while global warming caused by the logic of a fossil fuel-based economy destroys the planet, the existing system needs to be replaced by an economic order that is aligned with human interests and sustainable and balanced growth.”

Here's the bottom line: for our planet to have a future, businesses must become much more like charities.

We need a new social and political reality, replacing the system built on the premise of endless economic growth with one aligned with human, animal, and environmental interests. We need commercial companies to replace profit as their primary measure of success. Profit alone isn’t good enough; in fact, it’s destroying the world.

Who is better placed to lead on this than those whose work is already aligned with those interests? We must reject the identity that we are ‘just charities,’ or the ‘third sector.’ We must recognise that, for centuries, it has been those working in social causes who have taken to the streets to demand that society do better. I’m not suggesting that anyone reading this article should design a new political reality. However, each of us can move society towards the point where a new political reality can emerge.

While the climate crisis will reach a scientific tipping point, there is also a societal tipping point that we can reach. It’s the same point where it was no longer acceptable to sell sugar grown on slave plantations, or where it was no longer acceptable for the law to allow a man to rape his wife. We need to reach the point where it is no longer acceptable for corporations to profit from the destruction of our environment. Our sector, and all of us in it, share the responsibility for ensuring we reach that point in time. It’s our job to ‘get it’ before the establishment does, and then bring them with us.

So here are some specific actions:

  1. Find out how climate change will affect the people, places and causes you’re working for.

  2. Put ‘climate change’ on your future meeting agendas. Pressure your organisation to set goals around fighting to prevent the negative impact of climate change on your cause.

  3. When your organisations have these goals, talk about them with everyone – trustees, staff, funders, partners, supporters.

  4. Don’t be ashamed to speak about climate change. It doesn’t make you unprofessional or a hippy. It’s your job – you’re just doing it better and more bravely than the rest.

  5. Encourage practical changes within your daily life – convince your local café to switch to reusables, your local school in to install solar panels or your workplace to sign up with a cycle-to-work scheme.

  6. Reject the view that charities should be more like businesses. Argue loudly that businesses need to become more like charities.

If we can reach this societal tipping point, we may actually have a chance of saving the world.

This article first appeared in the winter edition of the Collective Voice quarterly magazine 'Inform'.

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