Yesterday we had an argument. The crux of our argument is this: You believe real actions to save the planet are taken by trained, specialist activists. Online actions, such as emails from a supporter don’t count. You called them “trivial.”
I don’t know if you come from actual experience of those kinds of real-world actions you champion. I do. I say this only to establish that I know whereof you speak. I have US federal trespass on my rap sheet for hiking to ground zero at the Nevada nuclear weapons test site and delaying a detonation by evading security for four days. I’ve marched on Washington and London. I’ve tasted tear-gas. I’ve broken the law in Johannesburg and Geneva, I’ve seen the inside of a Boston jail cell. I’m intimately familiar with old style metal handcuffs and modern roller-lock retention system disposable restraining devices.
But I wasn’t born an activist, and I don’t know many who are. The political act that first opened my eyes to civil disobedience and the power of non-violent direct action was a trivial one. I went to a concert.
As it turned out, it was actually a rally. But that wasn’t why I showed up. I showed up because I liked the music of Jackson Browne and Bonnie Rait. And before I knew it, I was swept up. I heard the speeches. I got the point. I signed a petition. I bought a t-shirt. There was no email in those days, but had I had the opportunity to send an email, I would have.
I don’t know how many other people who showed up at one of the No Nukes rallies went in as music fans and came out opponents of nuclear power, but I was one of them. A trivial act put me on a very long road toward political action, civil disobedience, and direct, non-violent action.
Sending an email or signing a petition or becoming a member of any activist organisation is, for many, a small first step toward engaging with the changing of the world.
And that’s essential. Not everyone can run a rigid-hulled inflatable boat in front of a harpoon. Not everyone can sail into the forbidden zone around a French nuclear weapons test. Not everyone can occupy the Brent Spar oil rig to keep the UK government and Shell oil from using the ocean as a dumping ground.
But those are the examples that make people take action. And those of us who take those actions need to realise that we do so not solely for the sake of the specific action we take, but for the example it sets. The people that do those actions are the role models for people who recycle. People who buy energy-efficient light bulbs. People who buy organic local produce. People who sign petitions and take email actions. People who vote products up and down with their wallets, and send politicians who don’t protect the environment out of office with their votes.
Certainly, the people who risk their lives, their freedom, or their reputation to stop illegal fisheries put far more on the line for their beliefs than someone who simply sends a letter to their supermarket asking them not to stock pirate fish. But neither action denegrates the other. They reinforce each other.
For some, online activism is an adjunct to action in their daily lives. For others, it’s a gateway to larger actions. For still others, it may be all they do. That’s ok. Activism is a big church — it needs to include all those faiths, not splinter over who is welcome in the door, and who shall be turned away as heathen, or unworthy.
We have to provide those easy opportunities for people to make a stand. And we need to design those opportunities so they really make a difference. Every time somebody creates what I call a “Santa Claus campaign,” in which people are asked to write letters that will never be read asking for things that will never be delivered — they weaken the form and chip away at people’s willingness to take real online actions. And I mean real online actions like Lawrence Lessing’s political donor strike to get corporate money out of the US elections, like Amnesty’s successful efforts to free political prisoners, like Greenpeace’s efforts to turn leaders of the IT sector into climate champions, by providing a counterforce to the petroleum and coal lobbies — and in so doing increasing the value of their stakes in smart grids and renewable technologies.
I’ve seen online activism stop a nuclear reprocessing plant in Japan. I’ve seen it spur Apple to commit to phase out toxic chemicals. I’ve seen it turn the tourist industry in Iceland into an ally in the fight to save whales. I’ve seen it drive Dove to the negotiating table over their use of rainforest-destroying palm oil in their products. I’ve seen it drive the government in Argentina to pass a law protecting their forests. There simply isn’t any doubt: online activism works.
So there you have it. I know you work hard every day for what we both believe in. And as ever in Greenpeace as in any activist organisation, we will have arguments. May it always be so. Nobody can rationally expect harmony from a group of headstrong, authority-questioning, quasi-anarchists who think they can change the world.
But I hope my little message this morning has helped you see my point of view. And that you’ll sign up to be a part of a 3-million-strong list of folks who have made a difference already, and who want their mice to continue to roar.
For the Earth,