In a high profile game of "he said, they said" a huge mess of fragile egos are being stepped on all over the place in the environmental movement. In a powerful one-two punch the "Death of Environmentalism" and the "Reframe" papers have called the movement dead or stupid or both. Who is right? ... Who cares?
The cold reality is that environmentalism did not rank high on polls and/or concerns of the people in the election. It hurts. The worse part is much of America (not just old white rich folks) are not making connection between the work of the movement (the big green groups) and the quality of their lives.
The priority busy people give to the environment has dropped from the top of the list to the middle or bottom (clean water, breathable air and safe places to live) environment has been trumped.
Was it the "dead" movement, "dead" leadership or the way that green groups talked about the issue? I don't think it was either.... completely. "Life" has come to become a term that environmentalists avoid! We are not winning any communications fights. The survival of the mega-NGO has become a blood sport (see reactions to questions of authority) and well leadership is what it is.
For all the furry such a statement may make ...and to avoid getting a 10,000 word essay from anybody... I will agree with Carl Pope, we are still missing the mark today.
"environmentalism is falling short because it shares with the rest of the progressive movement a set of increasingly outmoded organizing, advocacy and political approaches. It is strategically disadvantaged when confronted with value based, longer range, and more carefully framed hard-right advocacy. But this is a case for modernizing the left, not for killing environmentalism."
However, the disappointment continues .. "dead and stupid" claims are not having an effect on organizing or communications strategy. (Take a look at these press releases.... look for values, diversity and plain speak... USPIRG,
NRDC, Sierra Club, etc ... it is not fun to look at. Headlines like " Groups Launch Nationwide Effort to Stop Use of Binding Mandatory Arbitration Clauses" really doesn't get frames, new ways of doing business or the reaching out beyond the choir. As opposed to WildAid or other groups that get the idea of connections and values (even the little Biodiversity Project or Forest Ethics). Some groups are getting the connections, communications shift and strategy implications some maybe getting them but they are not showing it.
My rant was inspired by this article from Grist. The failure I am talking about is highlighted in that some green group "sources" don't "get" the value of Lakoff. His value is his place on the pedestal. He is so "hot" that people will get behind his message.
His work is not much better than lots of the stuff I have seen come out of the Biodiversity Project, Russennello and Stuart, M&RSS or Edge Research or a hundred other smart polling and marketing firms.
The power of Lakoff is his "star" attraction and the ability the guru has to unify the message out of a movement. I don't care if we unify behind communications themes generated from a grade school student. Our communication plan is not a forever choice. We can tweak it and refine it as a loose network as we move. The problem the movement has (and the green group) is the ability to move together and deliver force with one punch and one voice. We have no top down leader. It is not any king or queen to be named. We are a loose network. The network needs to spew forth a voice we can loosely jump behind. Lackoff is "hot enough" to unify the grassroots and the professionals. We can work with the language he proposes (in fact I suggest someone ought to just hand him the work of the Biodiversity project or any other communications plan and encourage him to put the Lackoff stamp on it and let the movement rip.)
The last thing we should be doing is ripping him off the mountain top as some of the "sources" in the story do. The key is to get moving in one direction. Push, fight, claw and hug.. adjust as necessary. We must start the process of change and build a new momentum.
This circular firing squad is not getting us anywhere. The GOP is walking around behind the movement and slitting the throat on each groups interest one by one. The "leadership" farts around shooting each other (class actions suits, slice ...worker protection, slice..the protection of parks and preserved lands, slice... women's health, slice...world peace and security, slice...endangered species...) It is time to work together and stop shooting our own.
The story in Grist makes me sick.
But the fate of the audacious venture is far from clear. In December, Rockridge submitted to Green Group leaders a draft of the diagnostic phase of the project, which Lakoff was scheduled to discuss at a conference in January. But with little advance warning, Lakoff cancelled his appearance.
"He flaked," said a top-level Green Group participant who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's in big demand right now, and the project apparently wasn't a priority. He has bigger fish to fry."
We have a problem we can begin to fix today...
I suggest it was the mismanagement of people's interests, their voice and attention that has stalled our progress. Professionals ignored and built personal disdain for the edges of the movement. A communications director actually told me at a party that "they don't want grassroots talking to the media".
The problem (of a disconnected public) can be solved with network-centric approaches. Design campaigns that re-engage people and deliver horsepower to the disconnected activists at the edge of the movement (yes, lots of people live in communities where environment is still important). They may not get fired up about breeding grounds for Caribou on the tundra or sinking islands in the Pacific but they will go to the wall on childhood asthma once they connect it to their lives. They still live in areas next to rivers that have little hope of swimming in during their life times. The power to do all the things that are important comes from the connection to a movement made at a local level. Think Global act local needs to apply to the political strategy of the green groups not just the bumper stickers that come with membership.
What to do? A new Top Ten for the Movement.
1. The people and the grassroots leaders are the heart of change. They are everywhere. The power comes from the ability to connect to each other and swarm on an issue.
2. The grassroots get power from momentum. It is more important to work with momentum than against it. Momentum can be instigated or natural.
3. The ability of the grassroots to get and maintain momentum is directly proportional to the communications and connections with each other (snowball, media cyclones and echo chamber effect) .
4. The ability to swarm together and "heal" breaks or divisions is directly related to the social friendships that are present.
5. Friendships are maintained by connections and catalyzed by common interest or common story. Common interest and common story can be identified and teased out of people. It can be reinforced across a rich set of communications channels.
6. Connections and communications channels can be maintained and supported strategically. The costs of maintaining connections can be reduced.
7. The power of a loose network of people to do things is directly related to ease at which they can acquire access to assets and expertise to guide and support their work.
8. In the long run it is inefficient to "lock" resources away from the grassroots because progress achieved without them will be easily "rolled back" without defense.
9. Everything a "group" can do. A loose network of people can do.
10. Political leadership comes from "command and control" or "quality of leadership and vision" not both. True talent driven leaders should embrace being connected to broader networks with flexible access to resources not fear it. New leaders will quickly emerge in a connected community.