Six Unlikely Sources of Wisdom and Inspiration for the Climate Movement

Six Unlikely Sources of Wisdom and Inspiration for the Climate Movement

In my younger days, I was the general manager of a tiny theatre company. Running the company taught me many things about art, commerce and the fragile egos of actors. It also taught me that theatre is the barnyard sow of art forms; it eats everything. Theatre artists draw inspiration from paintings, music, photography, movies, poetry and all the other creative mediums.

As communicators, we should take the same approach. We must always be on the lookout for fresh ideas, perspectives and strategies from any corners. And then we should be ready to, as one old boss put it, “disteal”—a combination of steal and distill—these ideas and adapt them for our work in the climate movement.

Such ideas are especially precious, because your competition (an uncomfortable phrase in the non-profit sector, but an undeniable fact) probably haven’t thought of them yet.

In that spirit, here are six books which I’ve found that, with a little distealing, have offered unexpected inspiration and wisdom to our work.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin – While ostensibly an autobiography, this book is actually a deep meditation on radical experimentation. It’s also a kind of handbook on engaging an audience with new ideas. I’m always inspired by autobiographical books that delve into the murky process of making art. Stephen King’s On Writing is another of these books, as well as being a masterclass in storytelling.

The End of Men by Hanna Rosin – A fascinating study in contemporary culture and the haste with which gender roles are changing, particularly in the workplace. I’ve never worked with an NGO that did enough audience analysis. Rosin’s book provided me with a new lens to look at how an NGO’s supporters act and interact.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – All organizations, NGO or otherwise, can learn a lot about innovation, experimentation and rigorous testing from this book. Just yesterday, I recommended to an NGO that they take a “minimum viable product” approach to their web implementation. The book is a rundown of best practices organizations employ to work better and win more often, and has gone on to inspire a series of conferences under the same name.

The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission by Rick Warren – Time and time again I find myself recommending this book for its great movement building advice. Warren is a pastor and The Purpose Driven Church was written with an audience of church leaders in mind. The content speaks to the core philosophy of building momentum among a community in support of a common cause. It’s an unexpected fit for the climate movement, but there are powerful lessons within. I have Marianne Manilov to thank for introducing me to this book at Web of Change a few years ago.

Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert – We are awful predictors of our own future happiness. Gilbert’s research into what makes people happy offers a surprising look at human nature. Perhaps this book is better applied to office politics and career planning than campaigning, but it does contain great nuggets about why your supporters behave the way they do.

The Purple Cow by Seth Godin – Marketing can be a dirty word among NGOs, but this is the best book I’ve ever read on the subject. I think about its central concept every time I start a new campaign. Like Made to Stick by the Heath brothers, it’s essential reading for every professional human who communicates with other groups of humans.

If you think laterally and dig a little, you can actually find food for NGO thought in nearly any book (“If our NGO is Harry, then who is our Ron, Hermione and Voldemort?”). The movie critic Pauline Kael once said “good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again”. Good books work the same way.


Darren Barefoot is the co-founder of Capulet. He does not read as much as he’d like.

This article is a reworked excerpt from The Noble Arsonist, Capulet’s new free e-book.