© Roland O. Watson 2001-3
Knowledge is power.
Information is knowledge.
Read, learn, act.
If not you, who?
If not now, when?
- both quotes: Animal Liberation Frontline Information Service
To bring the discussion back to earth, I want to return to the idea in the chapter on social solutions that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, and that we all therefore need to become activists. This is because the system of checks and balances on our social institutions has failed, and it has been left to us, as individuals, to do something about it.
The power of our institutions is now too great, and this is cause for the utmost concern. For example, all governments are imperfect, and abuse their power, and hence their policies, practices and laws are imperfect as well. And in modern society, with their greatly increased power - you only need to think of modern weaponry, and techniques of information control and surveillance - these imperfections have been magnified.
This is the justification for many activist responses. Someone has to fight these imperfections. We have to fight to protect our personal freedom, and we can never forget that this is more important than protecting the power of the state (and the other institutions).
Consider the activist response of civil disobedience. This occurs when activists take a stand against an unjust law, or the unjust application of a law. In such cases activists feel compelled to challenge the law, and many people often get arrested as a result. Indeed, to accomplish change people have to get arrested; the law is too rigid to allow it otherwise. The perfect example of this is the civil rights movement, which clearly demonstrated that in an inflexible and intolerant society, nothing will change if change is not demanded, with this sacrifice.
What we now accept as so obviously right as to be self-evident, such as black people being allowed to ride public buses and to eat in any restaurant, only a few years ago was not. And we would never have gotten to this point if some people, particularly the very first, including Rosa Parks and Dr. King, had not had the courage to get arrested (and worse) for their beliefs.
The prerequisite for activism is that you must know your cause; specifically, what problem is your concern, why it is your concern, and how it needs to be addressed. You must understand why you are being an activist! This is the only way to ensure that your efforts support a worthwhile cause, that you have not been misled by form to join some trendy mob, and that your work is not going to waste or causing unintended consequences. Few cases are clear-cut, and the future is very difficult to predict. You do not want to align yourself with a group against one tyranny, only to see the successors turn into tyrants as well. It is essential that your activism be based on understanding, not on ignorance. Activism is a type of rebellion, and it is therefore subject to the same pitfalls of being false or misdirected.
In addition, activism means being active! It means doing things; not being a spectator to the actions of others. Supporting a cause, even with financial contributions, is good, but it is not enough. You must become involved; you must do things yourself.
The main focus of activism should be on costs, on who incurs, and who pays, social and environmental costs. We saw that the basic rule of life is that actions have consequences. This can be restated as actions incur costs (and benefits). In a just social system, the people or institutions that incur costs should pay them (or not incur them!), but under our current system this is regularly not the case.
Suppose a corporation destroys a natural habitat, and then declares bankruptcy when faced with litigation over this action. The corporation then fires its rank and file employees, with no or limited compensation, but gives its executives generous severance payments. The firings in turn have destructive effects on the welfare, both physical and psychological, of the families of the employees, and on all the members, and small businesses, of the local community.
As this demonstrates, the costs extend far beyond the initial effect of environmental damage, they are in fact multiplied many times over, but the corporation is able to escape from its responsibility completely. Indeed, the departing executives may well profit handsomely.
So, who pays these costs? They were incurred, so someone has to pay them. The answer is: we all do, through having a degraded society and environment, and through the taxation requirements of government bailouts.
For modern activism to be effective, it must fight more than the recognizable, or surface, problem, in this case the environmental damage. It must fight, and change, the system that enables the burden of this destruction to be avoided by those who create it, through a process that often leads to additional, collateral, damage.
Institutions regularly engage in actions that generate enormous costs, and they do this with impunity, knowing that they will not be held to account. The following are a few examples. I leave it to you to consider fully their consequences: the costs that result.
1. Corporations exist solely to earn profits. Hence:
- Corporation A, let's call it Nike, relocates a plant to a developing country to lower its labor costs, and to avoid having to satisfy modern job standards. In the process, it fires all of its local employees.
- Corporation B, let's call it Walmart, recognizing that with proper conditioning consumers will concentrate on price to the exclusion of any other product characteristic, supports the conditioning through advertising and then constructs major outlets in any communities where local officials can be persuaded to change zoning laws and give them access to land. All smaller, traditional stores become price non-competitive. Community sprawl, with greatly increased road traffic, and the destruction of local natural habitat from derivative developments, erupts around the outlets.
- Corporation C, let's call it Unocal, unwilling to accept the evolved competitiveness of the oil and gas industry, looks for niche opportunities in countries ruled by dictatorial regimes, that other companies have shunned, and where no costs have to be born; where the regime, let's call it the military dictatorship in Burma, will plunder the environment, including clearcutting pristine rain forests; will engage in ethnic cleansing - call it what it is, mass murder - along a pipeline route; and will provide slave labor, such as for access roads for the pipeline, as required.
2. Governments which engage in nuclear testing, such as in a fit of pique, as with France (1995); as a necessary step on the road to attain long frustrated imperial ambitions, as with China; or to enable leaders to appear strong and to appeal to nationalist/religious sentiments, as with India and Pakistan, thereby halting progress in disarmament and, with the last two nations, greatly increasing the potential for nuclear war.
3. The extremist splinters of Islam, including those resident in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, which, ignoring that Islam is a tolerant religion, actually go so far as to subvert their faith, to bring dishonor upon it (and their nations), by using it to justify terrorist acts.
4. Various and manifold media, which with a bias or outright lies report on events so as to create controversy, and hence increase their sales and the possibility that new, newsworthy events, involving the deaths of many, many people, will occur.
As these examples show, there is no credible restraint against modern social institutions. They blindly pursue their needs, without regard to the consequences. (In their view, the end justifies the means.) Only activism, the voluntary rejection of and opposition to, such institutional behavior, by large numbers of individuals, offers any hope at all.
Also, the above examples demonstrate one cold, hard fact of the modern social system: we can no longer believe anything that any institution says (or any photo or video clip), without at least one independent confirmation. They believe it is their right to lie to us, and they base this right solely on the justification that to do so is in their best interests. There is no consideration of the means. It is only the end - their end - that counts. In this case, both the means and the end are unethical. (This is also an example of doublethink. Institutions believe they are obliged to lie to us; but, conversely, we must always be truthful with them.)
In addition to the hurdle of marshaling activism, of instigating real opposition, there is the practical issue of measuring these costs. How do you measure the costs of habitat destruction, or media hate mongering? This is the loophole, the escape hatch, which these institutions have used to escape responsibility. And, it is particularly problematic with regard to the real but intangible costs that they regularly incur, such as their negative effects on personal psychology and the derivative consequences of these effects on community welfare and harmony.
However, the problem of creating methods and standards of social accounting is beginning to be addressed. Measurement systems for such costs are being researched and developed. Indeed, with activist pressure they could even be made the subject of research by the corporate world, which already has experience with accounting for intangibles, through the valuation techniques that have been developed for such things as brands and trademarks. Social costs could be researched through the FASB, or Financial Accounting Standards Board, then incorporated into GAAP, or generally accepted accounting principles, and then propagated around the world through such institutions as the WTO, or World Trade Organization.
It is not going to be easy, though. For example, consider the just mentioned psychological costs. One way to estimate them would be to calculate the total amount spent on psychologists and psychiatrists, on the entire mental health care industry, including all its drugs. This is a sum that can be approximated. Of course, such a figure would still be too low: much mental illness goes untreated. (On the other hand, some psychological costs result from individual behavior, not institutional.) Then there is the question of how to allocate it among the various social institutions, and how to get them to pay. It is rather farfetched as well to imagine, at least at the present time, that the WTO would assist in such a process.
As another example, of research that has already been done, it has been estimated that the vast forest fires in Indonesia in 1997, and the haze that these fires produced, had an economic cost of $4.4 billion. (Source: Economy and Environment Programme for Southeast Asia) The fires were predominantly caused by illegal forest clearcutting by rubber and other plantations, and this clearcutting was tacitly approved by the Indonesian dictatorship. The estimate includes timber destruction, lost agricultural production, the loss of forest benefits for traditional local communities, including food, water and medicinal plants, and an estimated contribution to global warming. It does not include the lives of some three hundred people who died in a plane crash in Sumatra and other haze-related accidents. And, after all, how does one value a human life, or the lives of all the animals killed in the fires? Nor does it include the decline in the quality of life, for all the people and species that had to live in the haze-ridden region.
Because of these problems, with checks and balances, and cost measurement and collection, institutions and their executives have been able to escape accountability and blame. You could say that the consequence for them is that they have limited liability. The ultimate goal of activism, then, is to get institutions and their executives to behave ethically. They must be made to accept blame and responsibility for their misdeeds. They should be encouraged not to incur these costs, but, if they do, they must be forced to pay them.
The issue then becomes, what activism should you undertake? Which causes should you support? And this, for once, is an easy question. You should support, and work for, any cause in which you believe: for anything that you think is wrong and needs to be fixed.
But, of course, and as usual, you can think of this systematically, in other words, you can prioritize your activism, such as by first attempting to reverse the misdeeds that have the greatest costs. You can also specialize by institution, focusing on the misdeeds of governments, or corporations, or the media, etc. (all the while remembering that many misdeeds have multiple institutional sources).
The most important activist causes, or groups of causes, are as follows:
- Corporate responsibility
- Population activism: equality of the sexes, starting with the right of young girls to get an education; family planning education and the availability of birth control; etc.
- Habitat protection: wilderness areas - no resource extraction and no new roads, pipelines, electrical towers or dams; specific habitats - bioregions, forests, wetlands, reefs, oceans; toxic and hazardous wastes, and waste disposal in general including pollution prevention and cleanup; non-sustainable resource exploitation; anti-nuclear - both energy and weapons; global warming and ozone depletion; expanding the use of solar and other low impact sources of energy; etc.
- Species protection: threatened and endangered species, including primates, tigers, elephants, rhinos, cranes, owls, snakes, amphibians, whales, sharks, sea turtles, etc.; species rehabilitation centers, such as for orangutans, chimpanzees and gibbons which formerly were kept as pets; animal rights and liberation - against vivisection and the wearing of fur, pro-veganism; etc.
- Corporate responsibility
- Democracy activism: (This list includes dictatorships, recent victims of military coups, nations involved in civil war, nations with indigenous struggles, etc. Note: it is not complete.) Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, Irian Jaya, Aceh, Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea. Africa: Kenya, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Western Sahara, Algeria, Libya. Middle East: Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Palestine. Europe: Russia, Checnya, Belarus, Serbia, Kosovo, Turkey. Americas: Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru.
- Human and civil rights activism
- Protection of indigenous cultures
- Environmental justice: opposition to the perpetration of environmental crimes against poor and disadvantaged groups, including locating dumps in ghettos and on indigenous peoples lands; the destruction of such lands, and villages, for dams and pipelines; the theft of genetic material (biopiracy), etc. The existence of environmental justice movements reflects the fact that the costs and payoffs of environmental disaster are seldom, if ever, distributed in an equitable manner. (letter to editor, Ronnie Cabral, Earth First! Journal, November-December 1999, page 28)
- Against arms proliferation; for increased gun control
- Relief for political prisoners
- Refugee assistance
- Personal privacy and related issues, including institutional surveillance of the public
- Opposition to the abuses of the police
- Campaign funding reform
- Corporate responsibility
- Supranational activism (globalization activism): elimination of corporate control of, and the furtherance of corporate agendas by, the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and other organizations devoted to free trade and economic development.
- Board of Directors responsibility
- Investor responsibility and ethical investment
- Consumer protection
- Biotech and genetic engineering activism: identification, labeling, safety testing, government regulation, and liability issues; no patenting of life; opposition to biotech drugs, health products, growth hormones, pesticides and herbicides, seeds and food products, and trees; DNA privacy issues and opposition to DNA insurance, employment and pregnancy screening; and the halt of transgenic organ transplants (xenotransplantation), gene therapy, cloning and eugenics.
- Corporate responsibility
- Impartial media access; no media blackouts or greenwash
- Objective reporting
- Opposition to violence in films and on television
- Advertising activism, including the elimination of corporate advertising in schools
- Consumer protection
This is quite a smorgasbord of causes, and they can all be divided, many times over, into more clearly defined activist targets, such as the protection of a specific habitat. For instance, Maxxam Corp., and its subsidiary, Pacific Lumber, in its quest to pay off leveraged buyout debt, has been trying for years to cut down the Headwaters Forest in Northern California. The Headwaters Forest is a remnant of the Northwest old-growth forest, and some of its trees are up to two thousand years old (and still growing!). They are among the oldest and largest life forms on earth, but Maxxam and Pacific Lumber want to cut them down, to pay off debt incurred to make their executives rich. Thanks to the efforts of activists, specifically, of a group called Earth First!, as in, we have to think of the earth first!, they have been prevented from doing this, and a large part of the forest - but not all of it - has now been protected. (This was only accomplished through the payment of greenmail, though. Maxxam was able to extort from the citizens of California a sum of four hundred and eighty million dollars in exchange for the forest. In addition, during the activist campaign, one member of Earth First!, David Gypsy Chain, was crushed to death by a felled tree - the logger who cut it went unpunished; and another member lived in a tree, in its uppermost branches, for two years. This is what I mean by commitment, and also that actions speak louder than words.)
Also, you should not limit yourself to being active for only one cause, even if it is - by default - your cause; e.g., you are from Burma. By spreading your effort around you can: help on many fronts; get a better view of the deeper linkages and problems which underlie almost all activist concerns; and, you will guard against the emotional effects of the unrequited effort for those causes whose resolution takes years to accomplish. You will guard against becoming pessimistic, cynical, and burned out.
Now, we have seen that institutions use a variety of different tactics to shape and dominate us. Similarly, we, as activists, have many different methods at our disposal. However, before continuing with these, it is worth mentioning one institutional tactic that is specifically used against activism.
Social institutions, particularly governments and corporations, but with the clear allegiance and connivance of the media, do their best to ridicule and demonize activists. For the first, activists are portrayed as the lunatic fringe, as radicals. But in response to this, we should consider how the definition of radical has changed. Thirty years ago supporting the earth - defending the environment - was considered radical: now it is accepted not only as normal, but necessary. The radicals of thirty years ago were actually visionaries. Further, activists are ignored; censored out of the public consciousness. For example, there is a media blackout in the United States on the extent to which genetic engineering is being used, particularly in food products; the possible health consequences of this; and activist attempts to get such concerns addressed. Finally, if activists succeed in getting their voices heard, against all institutional attempts to smother them, they are demonized. The public is told that activists are terrorists, and this is a use of volatility, of branding someone an enemy. But activists are not terrorists! Being terrorized means living in fear. Who, precisely, are the activists causing to live in a state of fear, such as when they protest the logging of old growth forests? Is it the timber company executives? Such executives may have a fear, that their bank accounts will not swell to match their greed, but this is not the fear of terror, which is the fear for ones life.
Activists are treated unfairly by the press more often than any other group of people, except people of color, the poor and asylum seekers. The reasons are not hard to divine: we challenge powerful, vested interests, we are prepared to break the law and, above all, we can be discussed collectively without any fear of libel, as we do not belong to incorporated organisations. So, for example, the New York Times could claim that eco-terrorist tree-sitters booby-trapped buildings, attacked guards with catapaults and crossbows and dug pitfall traps full of metal stakes, safe in the knowledge that, as long as no one was named, no one could sue, even though the whole story is bullshit. But, if it makes the same allegations about security guards [who attack activists], it would get its pants sued off by the company.
- How To Spin The Media, Before It Spins You, Part II, George Monbiot, Earth First! Journal, December - January 1999, page 11
(This also shows why there are so many environmental justice crimes.)
Activists are also regularly accused of hypocrisy, and in doing so the mass media make use of an ingenious argument. They call us hypocrites, for taking public transport to actions, or for using the internet. The underlying idea is that you can't criticize the system if you are part of it or if you use it some way. But, other than through being a hermit, it is impossible not to be part of the system or to use some aspects of it, at least in a small way.
This is a very clever trap:
- You cannot criticize something if you are part of it, since
- By being part of it you must effectively endorse it, so
- How can you endorse something and criticize it at the same time? That's hypocritical!
This is spurious. Hypocrisy is saying one thing, but doing another. As activists, we stand up for our beliefs. But the media profess to search for truth. By using such fallacious logic, they demonstrate their real character. (They are the ones who are the hypocrites.)
Also, we are forced to join the system. We have been entrapped. Our participation is not voluntary. Hence, we damn well can criticize it, and also seek to escape from it, change it, or shut it down!
Ridiculing and demonizing activists is another social defense tactic, akin to the spreading of the suspicion that we are meant to feel about solitary individuals, those people who are not part of our group. Unfortunately, it is also a very effective tactic. Activists have been stereotyped, and through this, marginalized. What the world needs, more than anything, is more activists. Our activism can only succeed to the extent that our numbers increase, which means we must confront this tactic. This book, for instance, is one such attempt, to educate people that activism is the logical response to modern social conditions and the need to be ethical and to have a fulfilling purpose in life. I want to encourage many more people to get involved: to read, to learn, and to act.
To return to activist tactics, to our tactics, they all have a common, and simple, starting point, which is ethics. Activism is no good if it does not rise above the ethics of those it seeks to change; if its means are not as ethically supportable as its ends. In the course of your activism, for whatever cause, you must never forget this. When considering any new tactic, or application of a tactic, you must first evaluate if it is ethical.
Also, it is important to recognize that this issue will be presented to you in many different ways. For example, the choice of what you should do may be phrased as what is right versus what is effective, with some extremists in your group arguing that you have to be effective. You must resist this, and such individuals. Being right is necessary; it cannot be sacrificed, even if it appears to limit your effectiveness in a particular situation. (For further guidance, the next chapter contains an extensive formulation of ethics.)
Some activism is individual, such as the aforementioned casting of a vote, or refusal to buy a product that is advertised using negative influences. However, much of it is organized. A critical decision you are faced with when you decide to get active is whether to do it on your own or with some group or groups. On your own, you are free to do what you want. On the other hand, groups, with their strength in numbers, are often much more effective. And, you want to be effective; your goal is to effect change. The problem is, as a member of a group you will rarely have control, or perhaps even a say, over its actions. You could easily be at the mercy of the group leaders' agendas, and whatever actions the group takes, you will be identified with them.
Because of this, you should be very careful about whom you associate with. And, if in the course of your activism you find yourself in serious disagreement with a group, or its leaders, then by all means leave the group. Go it alone until you find other like-minded individuals, and then form your own group! (These are called affinity groups.) Similarly, in claiming responsibility for an action, if you plan to identify your group you must first consider the consequences of this on its other members.
This actually raises a major issue regarding the effectiveness of activism, which is that groups regularly splinter and multiply. As a result, they encounter difficulty in organizing and cooperating together, and achieving unity in their struggle. In addition, the targets of such activist causes, which rarely exhibit internal discord themselves (at least publicly), as a defensive response also attempt to bring about such disunity. They are very adept at turning activists against each other, using variations of the tactic of divide and conquer.
Indeed, the most effective activist groups are rarely so institutional; they recognize the pitfalls of social pyramids. Earth First!, and the Free Burma Coalition, for instance, are what might more properly be called affiliations. There is a form of central body for each (for Earth First!, it is the Journal), but it is not domineering or dictatorial. The occurrence of internal disputes is accepted as normal, and thought best resolved through consensus and compromise. With the Free Burma Coalition, anyone who supports the cause of freedom and democracy in Burma is perforce a member. The only proviso is that the organization is non-violent (as is Earth First!). It refuses to use violence in its activism, and all individuals who identify with it and consider themselves members (or participants!) must practice non-violence as well.
So, on to the tactics. Activists act; therefore, all of the tactics involve action. As with financial contributions, group membership alone is insufficient. In addition, the keys to success in any activist venture are to be creative, particularly when seeking to overcome institutional defenses, and to have fun. Activism is fun. Marching in a demonstration is a blast. The people are great, and you are doing something important, really doing something of consequence with your life.
The following are the standard tactics that are used in any type of activism:
1. Volunteer: volunteer on your own or with interested groups to assist disadvantaged and underprivileged people, and threatened species and habitats. In an international context, volunteer to work in refugee camps, at local schools and medical care clinics, or for some other NGO (non-governmental organization). There is a huge network of volunteer organizations around the world, and once you are part of it, once you start volunteering, it is easy to find new and fascinating opportunities.
2. Grassroots activism: found or join community, student or other groups and then engage in tabling, where you set up a table at some social event and hand out literature and talk about your cause. In addition, such events are often supplemented with, or designed around, activist speakers and performances and exhibitions by activist artists.
The objective of grassroots activism is to increase the publicity of, and, most importantly, the support for, your cause. You particularly want to engage the interest and if possible the involvement of members of the different groups which are being negatively affected. Your goal is to organize them, to pull them out of their complacency and defeatism, and to assist them in their opposition.
For activism to be effective, we must organize large-scale movements to express discontent and to demand change; movements of such a size that they cannot be ignored. But to do this, we will have to find ways to unify the disparate sources of rebellion which exist, including environmentalists, workers, students, ethnic and indigenous activists, religious groups, and even the disaffected individuals who listen to gangsta rap and hard core rock. Further, we must solicit the concern of those individuals who one day will suffer the most, if we are unable to solve our problems: schoolchildren.
Activists also must recognize that only one thing, historically, has led to large-scale rebellion: the deaths of a great number of people. Rebellion has never been instigated by the destruction of nature (although the taking of land has been a contributing factor in some popular movements). This is yet another reflection of human chauvinism, that we only get upset when bad things happen to us. For example, this is one of the reasons why the debate over genetic engineering is finally starting to gain some prominence: it involves a threat to people. (The history of the twentieth century includes a number of significant victories against government repression, but far fewer against environmental destruction.)
Lastly, there is the problem that activism is usually reactive. We assume, because we are ethical, that other people are as well; that they have a conscience and are not wholly dominated by personal selfishness. Then, when they demonstrate that they are so dominated, we have to react. To be effective we must build large-scale movements, and we must anticipate this: we must be proactive, and unpredictable.
3. Letter writing and petitions: send letters and petitions to the heads of the organizations which are the target of your activism, and also to your elected representatives in Congress, the heads of appropriate government departments and agencies, and the White House. You can also organize email campaigns, but these are considered to be less effective. Bulk emails are regarded as spam, as something that can be ignored, but letters almost always generate a response. Indeed, such responses are regularly well thought out, even though the signature will almost always be stamped. (The point is, you have attracted the attention of someone at the organization: someone has been compelled to respond to your argument.)
4. Direct lobbying: lobby local government officials and, if you can arrange it, take a trip to Washington, D.C. Doing this reveals the real (or at least the remaining) power of a democracy. You can simply walk into the Senate or House office buildings, and request meetings, on the spot, with your senators and congresspeople. Of course, you will probably end up meeting with their legislative or policy aides, but these are the people who create the documents, and originate the policies, that the elected officials sign off on anyway. Inform the aides of your concerns, and ask them to support your positions. (And, if they will not, ask them in strong, direct and well-reasoned terms, why not!)
Anyone can do this. You should not worry about being out of place. This is your right - they have to listen to you - that's what a representative democracy is all about. This type of lobbying is easy, and it's fun! (And for too long it has been the province only of institutional special interests, mostly corporate interests, seeking to make their arguments on the inside. Activists need to counter this: we need to be on the inside, too.)
If you are unable to make such a trip, then just use the phone. And use the congressional toll-free number. Call up your representatives, and others as well. If you identify yourself as a member of an activist group, the chances are good that one of the aides will take your call. (If they do not, or if they are out, then leave a message.)
5. Litigation: this is a straightforward tactic, albeit one which is usually used only when other methods fail. With the assistance of sympathetic attorneys, and legal-aid groups, who will often work free - there are some good lawyers! - the law is enforced against the institutions. Lawsuits are filed against institutions and their executives, and sometimes, a few times at least, justice does prevail.
Unfortunately, litigation is also regularly used by institutions against activists. It is used aggressively, and immediately. Institutions do not have to worry about hiring external counsel: they already have their own lawyers, in-house. (Corporations now make extensive use of SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, to prevent public activism, and undermine our democracy.)
6. Consumer boycotts: for a company that is engaged in unethical activities, organize a boycott of its products and services. As we will see later, in the chapter on corporate activism, this is one of the strongest tactics that we have, and it is risk free. You cannot be forced to buy such a company's goods.
7. Selective purchasing ordinances: through some organization that has great purchasing power, such as your university or municipality (town, city or state), work to enact a law that forbids the organization from doing business with any company, or companies, to which you are opposed. For instance, these ordinances, when enacted in the 1980s against companies doing business in South Africa, were instrumental in bringing about the end of apartheid there.
They have also had a strong impact for democracy activism in Burma, forcing some companies to stop supporting the dictatorship, and leading others to forego commercial relationships with it. However, these ordinances were challenged by a business trade group, the National Foreign Trade Council. (We saw that corporations exhibit great unity against activists, and also that they readily engage in litigation!) The NFTC argued that the ordinances (specifically, Massachusetts' Burma purchasing law) constitute foreign policy, and that only the federal government, which we have already seen is beholden to business, has the right to create and enforce such policy.
In the summer of 1999, a U.S. Appellate Court accepted their argument, and this is proof that our social checks no longer work. It says that no group of individuals, at least under the auspices of any governmental organization, at any level other than national, can organize to follow an ethical imperative regarding the behavior of any other country. This is an issue of great importance: these corporations want to take away our right of freedom of association regarding a crucial area of our existence, how we express our ethics through what we buy. In one action, they are attempting to restrict greatly the limits of human freedom.
The Massachusetts Attorney General appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it. (The court hears less than five percent of the cases submitted for its review.) The request for the appeal was accompanied by a grassroots campaign, which solicited the support of a large number of congressional representatives and dozens of activist organizations.
In June 2000, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Burma purchasing ordinance in the State of Massachusetts was unconstitutional. The state had enacted a law that effectively precluded companies that do business in Burma from winning state contracts. The law was intended to take an ethical stance: if your company supports the military dictatorship in Burma, which engages in widespread repression, slave labor and murder, we do not want to do business with you.
The Supreme Court overturned the law. It viewed the case as an issue between states rights and federal government rights, over who can set foreign policy. It ignored the issue of individual rights, the Constitution's Bill of Rights, including the right to speak out against unethical government purchasing, and also to have one's elected representatives do so as well.
Strictly speaking, the Massachusetts law was rejected because it was in conflict with the United States' own sanctions against Burma (if you believe the rationale presented by the Court). The U.S. was not speaking with one voice. However, the story is more complex than this. The Massachusetts law was enacted before the federal government imposed sanctions, and further: it had teeth. The sanctions were much weaker: they were designed to suit corporate interests, particularly those of Unocal, the American oil company with a large investment in Burma, since they (and other companies) were not required to divest their current operations, only not to engage in new projects.
The Massachusetts law was principled. The government sanctions were crafted to give the appearance of being principled.
The ruling, although seemingly narrow, is having a broad impact. It undercuts all government procurement ordinances that have a specific ethical motivation, such as to forbid the purchasing of goods made using child or sweatshop labor, or products made from rainforest hardwoods. Had the ruling been issued in the 1980s, it would have invalidated the aforementioned selective purchasing ordinances that helped bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Courts normally punish unethical behavior. It is rare indeed that they reject the desire and restrict the ability of individuals, and governments, to do right.
The NFTC was triumphant. They called the ruling a victory for the U.S. Constitution. They received vindication from the nation's highest court of the ethical standard that underlies their behavior, which is: if we don't do it, someone else will.
Corporate executives and spokespeople say, if we don't exploit the oil and fund the dictatorship, someone else will. If we don't use child or slave labor, someone else will. If we
don't destroy the environment for profit, someone else will. And if we don't brainwash the general public, someone else will.
The Supreme Court is mistaken, though, in its belief that it has had the final say. You cannot legislate, including via judicial interpretation, against human will and human reason. When a nation does it, it is called dictatorship. And for the Court, its decision will inevitably create resistance. The people of Massachusetts, through their representatives, made a decision to behave ethically in a very specific way. The Supreme Court cannot force them to do otherwise: to behave unethically. If it attempts to do so, it is being autocratic, and the people will find other ways to fulfill their decision to do right. The positive motivation of life is a greater force than any such efforts to contain it. (One can recall the fate of prior Court rulings, for slavery and segregation.)
Selective purchasing ordinances are not dead. New laws are being written which conform to the Supreme Court's ruling, and which preserve the public's fundamental rights of freedom of association and expression, including through what we buy.
8. Ethical investing: in a manner akin to selective purchasing ordinances, if you are part of an organization that has an investment portfolio, such as a pension plan or university endowment, try to get investment guidelines implemented that forbid the purchase of the stocks and bonds of unethical companies. (There are also positive screens, where investors identify ethical companies for support.) The types of guidelines which have been implemented so far preclude investments in companies which:
- conduct business with dictatorships and other repressive regimes
- destroy the environment
- manufacture weapons
- produce tobacco and alcohol products
- own casinos
- practice discrimination
- source their goods from sweatshop factories
- produce violent media
One expects that these guidelines will someday also be extended to all of the purveyors of mass consumerism, those companies that seek the McDomination of the world, particularly to those firms that strive to brainwash children.
9. Economic sanctions: following through on the lobbying point above, in the case of nations which actively repress their citizens, encourage the U.S. government to impose economic sanctions against them. There are different types of sanctions, including the prohibition of investment in such nations, both of new investment and also retroactive bans, where companies which currently are active are required to suspend or divest their operations (this is what activists would like to see the U.S. enact against Burma); and also such things as bans on military assistance, the importation of goods from the country, etc.
10. Demonstrate: this is the core expression of activism, where you protest against companies and other organizations (or social groups) that are engaged in unethical activities. There are many different types of demos, and they normally take place at organization offices or other facilities. Demos include marches, strikes, sit-ins, sleep-ins, teach-ins, street theater, such as anti-nuclear die-ins, and, in extremely serious circumstances, such as to protest murder, hunger strikes. (Gandhi did it, and the Burmese democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and animal rights activist Barry Horne, among many others; so can you.)
There are even virtual sit-ins now, when large groups of people access, at one time, the computer servers of obnoxious websites (as of unethical corporations), causing them to crash.
A further distinction can be drawn regarding the purpose of the demonstrations. In most cases it is to protest, but in others it is to shut down. Marches in Washington, D.C. are generally the former; demonstrations at meetings of the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are regularly the latter.
Another important issue with demos is that they should not be wholly negative. Criticism is not the only point. You want to encourage the organization and its employees to change, to stop what they are doing. And, when you do this, the use of reason, rather than emotion, is usually much more successful.
It is worth remembering that change cannot be imposed from without. It requires movement within the target organization as well. You want to encourage reform, to encourage the institution to develop a culture of ethics. For example, every organization should have not only a mission statement, as in we want to make a lot of money, but also a code of acceptable behavior, which should state but in this effort we will not engage in the following acts ...
This code should enumerate all of the publics and environments that are affected by the institution, and it should be updated periodically. And, it should be distributed to every employee and also to all such publics. Furthermore, this code should be enforced by a senior management compliance officer, who reports directly to the institution's Board of Directors.
11. Civil disobedience, monkey wrenching, and other direct action: for the more hard-core, the more committed, among you. This is where activists directly intervene in a situation and attempt to halt destruction on the spot. Examples include:
- Blockading the construction of new roads in roadless areas, pulling out survey stakes, and disabling bulldozers being used to build such roads, or new pipelines, or dams, etc.
- Locking down across roads to exploitative facilities, or across railroad tracks or to ships, to stop unethical shipments.
- Reclaiming the streets in town centers, to protest unwarranted development and the resultant degradation of our quality of life.
- Sitting in trees, to prevent them from being cut down.
- Hanging banners from institutional facilities, denouncing the institution's misdeeds.
- Pieing institutional leaders, for the same purpose.
- Product dumping, at organization offices and outlets, to protest unethical trade and commercial practices.
- Redesigning billboards, so they present a more accurate message, an education rather than form. (This is called subvertising.)
- Tearing up fields of genetically engineered crops.
- Hacking unethical websites.
- Cutting fishing long-lines and driftnets, which vacuum the sea.
- Liberating animals, saving them from torture and slaughter.
You should expect to be arrested (or at least pursued) if you do something like this, and it is essential that you find out what this is likely to entail before you engage in the action. The application of the law varies widely: in many cases you will be let off, or only required to pay a small fine, but in other, repressive, jurisdictions, you could be subjected to a lengthy jail sentence.
The surface reason why you will be arrested is that you will almost certainly contravene some local law, such as one against trespassing. But, more deeply, and far more importantly, you will be arrested because in any society, either modern or traditional, the police serve only those who are in power. You are against institutions which abuse their power, but the police do not care about that. They are for the institutions - they function as private security guards for them - and against you. They do not enforce the laws, rather, they enforce the social order. Indeed, an extreme tendency of the process of social conditioning that has been described is that in certain societies, including totalitarian and police states, the established order, the controlling institutions, are completely above criticism. You must be highly sensitive and alert to anything that you cannot criticize, on punishment of the law, since this is an assault on your last defense, the foundation of activism, which is your right of self-expression.
Even in a democracy, the evolution of the legal system is never accomplished with ease. In general this process - the creation of a just set of laws, and also the impartial enforcement thereof - occurs as follows:
- The people elect a representative government.
- That government passes laws.
- The people choose whether or not to follow the laws, i.e., they decide if the government truly has represented their interests.
- In cases where people disagree strongly with the laws, they break them.
- If enough people do this (or support those who do), the laws, and the judicial system, are not democratic. They do not represent the will of the people. In an intelligent and tolerant society, the representatives change the laws. In repressive and intolerant societies, they use the laws to control the public, particularly dissident and nonconformist individuals.
12. Agitate: if in your travels you visit peoples - cultures - that are being exploited, you should encourage them to defend themselves.
13. Finally, you can make a career of your activism. Get involved, seek employment, in an activist or volunteer group. Get a job with an NGO (or start your own), which is a new type of social institution, of recent evolution, which seeks to function as a new social check, and also to provide services to those groups which have been ignored, which are not deemed important enough by the powers that be. A specific area that still needs a lot of work, and therefore where there should be a lot of growth and opportunity in the future, is in the international coordination of activism, to offset international institutional collusion.
Now, and as has been inferred, in your career as an activist you should be prepared for the consequences. You must anticipate your need for, and arrange beforehand, publicity for your actions, and any assistance that you will require, including for support personnel, and particularly for legal representation (and perhaps even diplomatic support), if you might be arrested.
Indeed, the first item, publicity, is essential for many reasons. An action can be regarded as effective, in an intermediate fashion (ultimate effectiveness is in achieving your end - in correcting the misdeed or problem), if you obtain a lot of publicity for it. This is measured by how many people you reach, and the manner, positive or not, and focused and convincing or not, in which your message is relayed. It is essential to invite the press, both television and print (this would generally be after the fact for many forms of direct action); to give them any information that they need to understand it, by way of a press release and other materials; and to encourage them to cover it and your message in a positive way.
(This is actually the other major benefit of direct action: not only may you stop the misdeed in its tracks, but you will certainly attract media attention. In fact, it can be argued that the only effective way to get the public's attention is through civil disobedience: to break unjust laws. The public has been brainwashed very effectively. It has been told to ignore social problems, even the most severe and obvious. People need to be jerked out of their complacency, and direct action, the efforts of individuals who are not complacent and who will make a stand, is quite possibly the only way to accomplish this.)
As to your message, you obviously want to describe the institution and its misdeeds, the costs that have been incurred, and the corrective action that is required. However, you also want to focus on the institution's executives. As we have seen, a gaping loophole exists: institutional executives are able to escape personal responsibility. They hide behind the institution's large, impersonal facade. They are cloaked in anonymity, and never held to account.
This loophole must be closed! Make an integral, or even primary part of your message identification of the executives in charge. Point them out as the unethical cowards that they are. They may retain their positions following such a public identification, but not their prestige and reputation.
Publicity is also essential because it increases the chances that during the action you will not be attacked and, if you are arrested, that you will be treated fairly and let off quickly without charge. In this regard, having a TV cameraperson on-site is greatly to be preferred. The police, and any institutional thugs who are present, will be much more reserved if they know they are being filmed. Indeed, you should supplement the press with your own cameras: equip as many of your own people as you can.
(For a full discussion of how to deal with the media, see the excellent two part article by George Monbiot, Exploit The Media, Before It Exploits You, and How To Spin The Media, Before It Spins You, in the Earth First! Journal issues of November-December 1998 and December-January 1999. They discuss in incisive detail press strategy, the drafting and issuance of press releases, the briefing of spokespeople, and the conducting of media interviews. They can be obtained through the Journal staff.)
These, then, are the methods of activism, and as you can see there are a lot at our disposal. All that we really require is more people, more activists, for their implementation. But, is this really the case? Perhaps it gets even more complicated than this. These are the basics of activism, but there are some advanced issues as well, issues which will have to be considered if we are to achieve our goals.
The first of these, which is of supreme importance, given the degree of resistance that people and institutions usually have to change, to becoming more ethical, is the subject of nonviolence, or, said another way, the question of when activism becomes open rebellion. We are attempting to construct a better social order, and this means confronting minor, localized and containable problems, to ones that extend worldwide and which cause vast destruction; and also problems that make minor impositions on our freedom, all the way through to those which are responsible for full blown repression and extermination. At some point activism is not enough. Armed rebellion becomes necessary. (An extensive exposition of this subject, including of where the transition takes place, is given at the end of the chapter on corporate activism.) Further, another way to look at this is to consider our goal. Is it reform, or revolution, or evolution, and if the last what, precisely, will be required for social evolution to occur?
Also, there is the issue, mentioned above, of the violence that is directed at activists themselves.
Always the same trend emerges: where environmentalists are effective in bringing world attention to an issue, they are met with increased violence. Government authorities either turn a blind eye or actively participate by labeling the protester violent to sanction the use of violence against them.
- Extract of the review by Cindy Baxter of the book, Green Backlash, The Global Subversion of the Environmental Movement, Andrew Rowell, Earth First! Journal, June-July 1999, page 32
How should activists respond to this? Should you accept violence against your person? Isnt this appeasement, and unnatural? It is not only David Chain who has died in the fight for social justice and environmental conservation. There have been many other cases:
- Karen Silkwood was murdered after reporting safety violations at a Kerr-Magee nuclear plant in Oklahoma.
- Dian Fossey was murdered while working to save the highland gorillas of Central Africa.
- Chico Mendes was murdered trying to protect the Amazon rainforest.
- Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8 were executed by the former Nigerian dictatorship.
- Indigenous rights activists Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Laheenae Gay were murdered while helping Columbias Uwa tribe defend their homelands from exploitation by Occidental Petroleum.
-And, of course, many, many other individuals, from all manner of cultures, have been killed in similar struggles. (The issue of violence against activists is reviewed in more detail in the section on the police in the Nations and Government chapter.)
Lastly, we must never forget that we want to change, not only protest. We therefore need to expend a lot of thought and energy on exit strategies and follow-through, the precise series of steps by which social and environmental harms will be reversed and then not allowed to recur. For instance, it is not enough to support the fight to change a dictatorship to a democracy; there are a number of practical issues that have to be considered as well. These include: the resolution of conflicts between different competing or adversarial groups within the nation; the holding of elections, which requires independent oversight and verification, and the guarantee of safety for the voters; and the drafting of a constitution and a body of law guaranteeing personal freedoms, and enabling government structures and political parties and processes.
Then there is the question of the dictators: what do you do with them (and their cronies, and the current corrupt infrastructure including government officials and the police)? For the dictators, should you kill them outright, as in Romania, or via a trial judgment, as at Nuremberg; imprison them and confiscate their assets; put them in internal exile - restrict their movements; or banish them from the country?
These are crucial decisions, and they also lead to the most confusing and difficult ends and means questions of all. If you treat the dictators leniently, they may go more easily, but this is not justice. They have not paid the consequences of their actions, and it increases the likelihood that they, or their children, will return to power. Alternatively, if you pursue the objective that they must be held accountable, they will fight that much stronger to stay in power, quite possibly by increasing their repression. (A recent example of this was seen with the Serbian dictator Milosevic, and his ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians.)
Similarly, if you want to change modern society, where corporations and the media have gained so much power, how do you alter their structure, or peoples relationship to them, to achieve this change? In summary, our overall goal, as activists, is to propagate a new set of values, based on reason, not on form, such that the world attains a real equilibrium. But, again, how do we change the systems set of values, and even if we can design such a process, and implement such a change, what new set of values should we have as our goal?