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What does it mean to be an activist?

November 29th, 2012

by Lorna Howarth

Lorna Howarth thought she knew plenty about activism, until she read The Activist’s Handbook which changed her way of thinking about how (and why) we can all make a difference

Activists are simply practicing ‘participatory democracy’

I was talking recently with Resurgence & Ecologist Managing Editor, Susan Clark about how much I enjoy the Book Reviews section in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. I was saying, in particular, how in a world where information is so readily reduced to 140 Twitter characters, the newly jointly-titled magazine’s substantial review section neatly summarises a whole array of the most important current and classic publications on ‘soil, soul and society’ in every issue – which means those of us who sadly don’t have time to read the entire books themselves don’t have to but can still stay informed.

As an occasional reviewer myself, I find the whole process of reviewing a book is intriguing. The focus required to distil the essence of a 100,000 word tome into a 750-word summary is intense – but on several occasions, that deep scrutiny has given me an insight into the subject that I may never have gained. For example, the latest book I reviewed was one that I probably would never had read at all: called An Activist’s Handbook – the title didn’t grab me and anyway, in my work at Artists Project Earth, I come into regular contact with activists – so maybe I didn’t need to read it…

But Susan had asked me to review it, and I am so glad I said yes because I gained such a deep insight from that process that it has changed my whole perspective on activism and indeed my role at work.

What underpinned my new understanding was the realisation that activists are simply practicing ‘participatory democracy’.  Obvious isn’t it? Well no – activism by most people is seen as protesting against something: at best raising awareness, at worst, complaining.

But as the author, seasoned activist Aidan Ricketts points out activism enables us to participate directly in a democratic process that is otherwise marginalised to ticking a box once every four years.

This simple fact has given me such deep inspiration: because I see now how every one of the wonderful and courageous activists who dares put their head above the parapet and voice their concerns about a particular issue is taking part in an evolutionary process.

We are constantly being told that the general public has become disengaged from the political process. Really? We may have given up on the arcane and partisan first-past-the-post voting system that elects people we have no faith in anyway, but the rise of activism shows that participatory democracy is alive and kicking, effective and empowering!

Being an agent of social change can be one of the most exciting journeys in life.

In case you missed it, here’s the An Activist’s Handbook review again.

Lorna Howarth writes Frontline: Action from the Grassroots for Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. She is development director at Artists Project Earth ( and founder of The Write Factor publishing agency (

*Image courtesy of



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