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A questionnaire for Powershifters — click for larger version

It is a strange but not uncommon experience for youth to hear veterans of the 1960s disparage protest. Youthful protest, it is implied, can never hope to achieve the cultural and political breakthroughs of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam era; it’s nothing more than nostalgic play-acting by those too young to know what the ’60s were all about and too naive to understand a changed and nuanced world, where simplistic slogans and confrontational tactics are at best a waste of time and probably do more harm than good.

This is hogwash.

What power environmentalists do have was wrested from a complacent society by determined, principled confrontation, and this is spent rather than increased by polite advocacy. It is also worth noting that the peak of environmental protest was the surge of Greenpeace USA led actions in the early 1980s.

The strength of public commitment to environmental action and climate crisis intervention (as opposed to the breadth of public opinion, a fickle product of ADD mass-media news cycles) is directly proportional to our conviction and moral clarity — for which protest, or the lack thereof, serves as a convenient civic barometer. Without thinking about it, most Americans gauge how bad things are by whether there are people in the streets (or Zodiacs).

If we say that the world is coming to an end but dutifully keep our crayon marks inside the lines in our personal lives; if our organizations continue business-as-usual, developing decade-long fundraising plans and blithely promoting climate policies based on 30- or 40-year implementation schedules; and, above all, if we fail to express the fear, anger, and sorrow which are the only appropriate responses to these existential last days, then we signal by what we do that we do not believe what we say.

Protest is counter-intuitively effective. It annoys and discomfits and is therefore worrisome to those who count on averting the end of the world by small, reasonable, and accommodationist measures.

To not protest in such circumstances, however, is tantamount to throwing in the towel. Why on earth should we expect the rest of America to take what we are saying seriously if we don’t seem particularly worried and haven’t even bothered to take the most minimal steps expected of any seriously pissed off or distressed group?

Failure to take extreme measures undercuts everything we do.

Persuasive evidence for this commonsense understanding of the sources of our power is provided by Jon Agnone and Erik Johnson, who are the first researchers to systematically examine the relative importance and relationship between environmental protest, public opinion, and institutional advocacy. In his first, seminal paper, Agnone outlined the amplification theory of U.S. social change, backed up by substantial and compelling statistical analysis. The amplification theory of protest may be summed up as follows: environmental protest is the most significant factor influencing public opinion; the combination of protest and public opinion has the greatest impact on U.S. government policy; institutional environmental advocacy is ineffective unless conducted against a background of protest.

Our present leadership offers you a very different perspective. They say that the experience of two decades demonstrates that the American people cannot be confronted with reality. When we do so, they tell us, people are turned off. Our only alternative is to reframe the terrible threat of climate collapse in positive terms and refrain from moralistic or disruptive activities. This dubious logic is so universal that very few U.S. environmentalists see anything amiss that our current highest priority is lobbying Congress for “green jobs.”

Transpose the details to a different context, however, and our both story and unruffled, business-as-usual approach come to seem very, very strange.

Imagine if Martin Luther King had commissioned pollsters, communications experts, and fundraising consultants, as U.S. environmentalists do. How would the civil rights movement have fared if it had followed an analysis such as …?

Dear Dr. King,

Our national polling shows that most Americans prefer not to acknowledge the inequalities of “Jim Crow” laws. When their attention is drawn to unjust conditions — particularly through confrontational tactics like the Woolworth sit-ins — most Americans express feelings of discomfort, and many blame protesters for provoking authorities.

Based on these findings, we conclude that an expansion of protest will tend to diminish public support for civil rights, reduce fundraising rates, and strengthen the position of segregationists.

We recommend an alternative — dubbed “Bring America Together!” — with three key steps: 1. rephrase civil rights in inclusive rather than contentious terms; 2. seek full equality in several steps designed to reduce opposition, and; 3. reframe the negative, distressing, and conflictual public narrative on race by linking civil right with positive solutions which better connect with the concerns of most Americans. Instead of demanding an end to Jim Crow on moral grounds, for example, we might argue that freeing financial strapped local and state governments from the burden of constructing two sets of public facilities will provide a tremendous economic stimulus to the depressed economy of the south.

Sounds silly, right? But think about our own story. We know that tipping points for critical climate systems have been passed and the point of no return will be breached within years. We know that nothing now proposed by our own organizations or the Democrats comes anywhere close to addressing the crisis. But instead of shouting this terrible truth to the heavens with all the force we can muster; instead of castigating the authors of the largest ramp-up in fossil fuel use in world history as mass murderers on a heretofore unimaginable scale; instead of challenging our own go-slow organizations and putting our bodies on the line in a last ditch effort to halt global self-immolation, we are cheerfully invited to praise Democratic career politicians for doing us the favor of adding sound energy policy to the list of second tier national issues.

Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry (supported by RAN and Greenpeace) and the folks organizing in West Virginia coal country invite you to think and act differently, and it is vital that you take up the offer. If there is any hope to shift the course of humanity, it depends on whether and when America sheds its ordinary, insular, commercial and private habits and reasserts our other national character traits of generosity, sacrifice, creativity, common purpose, and drive. To accomplish this in the dangerously short days that remain to us depends on you.

The Capital Climate Action and ongoing Mountain Justice campaigning are not merely one offering in a smorgasbord of climate options; these actions chart a fundamentally different course for environmentalist climate program which stands counter to the failed incrementalist, insider strategies of the past.

The most profound statement that could be expressed by those in attendance at PowerShift would be to turn your backs on Capitol Hill, double the number of bodies turning out for the Capital Climate Action, and collect many thousands of pledges to attend Mountain Justice Spring Break, March 7-15, and
Training Camp 2009, May 17-22.

Of a smaller order, why not clip the coupon at the top (click to enlarge) and ask your workshop leaders these four questions? Email responses to us at brightlinesnetwork[at]gmail.com — we’ll compile and post them.