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Our Insights 3 Aug 2011

Environmental Activism: Waxing or Waning?

By Mark Lee

Photo: Sierra Club

There was a conflict of sorts in my inbox last week.

Wednesday heralded the arrival of the latest Ethical Corporation newsletter, the subject line for which read “Effective environmental activism all but abandoned in the US”, and which pointed recipients to an early July post from Peter Knight of Context America suggesting “Environmental groups have all but abandoned a push for better policies in preference for encouraging their supporters to pursue futile personal green efforts, aided and abetted by marketers flogging supposedly green goods.”

Surrounding Ethical Corporation’s missive? Multiple emails pronouncing the biggest investment in grassroots activism in, well, forever: Michael Bloomberg’s $50 million contribution to in the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Knight is a smart, seasoned observer in the sustainability space. Bloomberg didn’t make billions by throwing away tens of millions on lost causes. What’s going on?

Shifting tactics

I’ve posited for a while, and especially since COP 15 in Copenhagen in late 2009, that civil society organizations generally, and environmental non-profits in particular, would be (and should be) much more aggressive in terms of campaigning in coming years. My simple analysis is this: On the road to Copenhagen, a well-reasoned bet was made by many environmentalists that cooperation, dialogue and partnership with government and industry leaders created the greatest chance that a robust “framework for climate change mitigation beyond 2012 [would be] agreed” in Denmark and widely implemented by governments worldwide.

Betting’s risky, and this was a big one that missed. COP 15 ended without an accord, and international climate negotiations have been in disarray since, with the very capacity for great multilateral deal-making in question.

But Copenhagen’s very failure seems to be the impetus behind new, successful campaigns (and campaign styles)., committed to ‘building a global movement to solve the global climate crisis’ by educating and empowering individuals, has modeled how new movements might thrive, simultaneously and powerfully expressing itself online, through all forms of media and by rallying far-flung supporters for in-person days of action (next up: the September 24, 2011 Moving Planet event). And the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign? It’s been an astonishing bootstrap success already, which with Bloomberg’s support might be a game-changer.

Be Like Mike(s)

Even without their own iconic commercial, the partnership between New York City’s dynamic mayor and Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune looks sure to be successful. If it is, we can expect it to grow and attract support, and to be emulated by other organizations determined to address climate change or championing other sustainability issues.

According to the Sierra Club press release, with Bloomberg’s support, Beyond Coal (which has already stopped more than 150 new coal-fired plants) expects to “effectively retire one-third of the nation’s aging coal fleet by 2020, replacing it with clean energy.” This means cutting coal production 30% by 2020 – and mercury pollution from coal by 90% by the same date – while replacing a majority of coal with clean energy. This is to be accomplished by increasing the number of Sierra Club campaign states from 15 to 45, and the number of full time Sierra Club staff working on the campaign from 100 to 200, all while endeavoring also to grow the organization’s active member and support base from 1.4 million to 2.4 million people. So stay tuned – this movie is coming to a theatre near you.

Let the sun shine in

You may want to ‘Be Like Mike(s)’ because you directly support Beyond Coal’s objectives, but there is another reason too.

In an age when Astroturf NGOs with anonymous financial backers are created to give the illusion of legitimacy to dubious political and commercial positions that can’t generate genuine grassroots support, there is no hiding (and no effort being made to hide) a $50 million contribution from one of America’s richest men and most prominent politicians to the Sierra Club (which is 119 years old, and the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States).

And hurrah for that, for while societal policy and leadership must be formed from diverse and (as with climate) often competing worldviews, democracies require transparency to enable choice and meaningful citizen engagement. Simply put, those opposed to action on climate too often fail to live up to this standard. Love ‘em or leave ‘em, Bloomberg and Brune are modeling transparency. Positions aside, we’d be better served if everyone engaged in the climate debate would follow suit.

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