Blogosphere debates on ‘New UK Public Thinkers‘ inspired some deliberation over the holidays about both the nature of public thinking and those who have contributed in 2010. While considering my options I developed my own criteria. Significant public thinkers must be: 1) doing as well as thinking, 2) developing significant new ideas, and 3) participating in public debate. The criteria are perhaps as interesting as the nominations: what kind of thinking really matters?
1. Thinking / Doing – Worthwhile thinkers must engage in work towards putting new ideas into practice. Theories divorced from action are worse than useless because they promote cynicism and hypocrisy. Radical educator Paulo Freire explains that ‘an inauthentic word… results when a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; as the world is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating ‘blah’. It becomes an empty word, which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action‘ (1970, 68).
2. Significant New Ideas – New ideas are a dime a dozen. What is more rare are new ideas that address today’s most pressing social, environmental and economic problems. Significant new ideas emerge from a process of struggle with current problems, informed by scientific or social theories and historical lessons.
3. Public Debate – Public discourses demand that we move beyond marginal groups or communities of practice and engage in the realm of the guardians of the status quo – i.e. the media. Despite all its flaws including its tendencies to exhibit extreme bias towards hegemonic perspectives, as long as we have some media left that is not entirely dominated by corporate agendas, the media is the ground for public debate as the medium capable of reaching the most people.
My three New Public Thinkers 2010 are Polly Higgins, Caroline Lucas and Laurie Penny. Yes, they are all women. Perhaps I am guilty of positive discrimination or perhaps it is that women are developing especially strong insights and strategies. Perhaps it is the manner that the women often work as part of collective movements or that women often work for the causes that I believe are most important.*
Polly Higgins’ work on the concept of Ecocide holds the potential to create a legal framework for the protection of global ecological systems. Polly submitted a proposal to the United Nations in April 2010 to create the crime of Ecocide, to be recognised as the 5th Crime Against Peace; including Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes and Crimes of Aggression. Polly Higgins (@pollyhiggins and @thisisecocide) is an international environmental lawyer, author of Eradicating Ecocide and an active public speaker: ‘Instead of our laws protecting the property rights of the few, we can shift to laws that impose responsibilities, duties and obligations for the benefit of the many.’
Caroline Lucas (@carolinelucas) was elected the first Green Party MP in April 2010. Perhaps the bravest things she has done this year is her support in July 2010 for seven acquitted campaigners who caused damage to an Edo arms factory under the lawful excuse defence because the company sold weapons used by the Israeli military. Lucas explains: ‘I am absolutely delighted the jury has recognised that the actions of the decommissioners were a legitimate response to the atrocities being committed in Gaza. I do not advocate non-violent direct action lightly … [but] their actions were driven by the responsibility to prevent further suffering in Gaza.‘ 
Laurie Penny (@pennyred) is a young freelance writer whose articles during the student protests has provided one voice (among many) for the passionate, articulate and political sussed youth movement. Laurie’s reports describe the politicisation of a whole new generation, a generation that seems to have learned the lessons of the past few decades: ‘Parliamentary politics has sold the young out, and whatever bargain-basement price tag mainstream parties slap on their membership, they aren’t buying it any more.’ Guardian, Dec.24 ‘This is a leaderless protest with no agenda but justice: it is a new children’s crusade, epic and tragic.’ Guardian, Nov.24 ‘Today, as social media come of age, the rules of resistance are undergoing a similar shift. Combine digital empowerment with a generation systematically deprived of economic security, and you have the perfect storm. Something huge is happening, and the word for that something is solidarity.‘ New Statesmans, Dec.2010
Lucas, Higgins and Penny are just a few of thousands of voices outside dominant public discourses demanding radical change. I wish I could list all the runner-ups but there are just too many. Please see my #ff on Twitter Friday December 31st. Despite dire problems born out of outdated understanding of our collective predicaments, voices such as these provide opportunities for shifts in law, governance, social institutions, education and beyond to meet current challenges.
* Although we are faced with multiple crises my focus is primarily on the environmental crisis. Environmental problems threaten not only long term prospects for human prosperity but catastrophic collapse of ecological systems.