This ain’t your grandma’s protest

One of the hardest things for me about being an environmentalist is being known as an environmentalist. Although it can be said Western society has warmed up the environmentalism to the point that it is now fashionable to be “eco,” the image of a hippie, tree-hugging radical still persists. When I was studying Environment & Resource Studies at Waterloo, I learned that there were many ways of responding to environmental problems. For a class on Environmental Education and Action, I addressed my hesitation to be categorized as a tree-hugging radical by exploring some of the benefits of taking a more confrontational approach (such as protesting, boycotting, media stunts)  to being an environmentalist.

This can be contrasted with approaches that work within corporate and government systems to create change. I would put LEED certification and sustainability reports, for example, in this category.

Next week, I will write about some benefits of these approaches that work with business and governments in more of a cooperative way.

This ain’t your grandma’s protest: building a case for confrontational tactics

There is a certain romanticism about early protest campaigns of the 70s in North America (Anderson, 2000; Walter, 2009); we see chanting throngs of people, blocking the street and carrying cardboard signs. Greenpeace activists are scaling billboards. Tree-sitters are sitting vigil in trees to prevent the giants’ fall.

But are these tactics still relevant and effective? Or are they dated and only self-serving? Saul Alinsky’s 1971 classic Rules for Radicals has been the backbone of many confrontational social movements and protests – but some people today feel it is outdated, preferring tactics that work with business rather than against it(Vancouver Community Network, 2013). But the anti-corporate environmental activist often suffers an image crisis of negative framing in the media, often to the point that they do not have the support of the public they are trying to represent(Lester, 2010). In the 1980s, international organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth reacted to this dilemma by taking on new organizational structures that – to the criticism of some – mirrored that of the corporations and bureaucracies they were trying to upturn(Anderson, 2000). No longer always on the margin, environmental organizations are today often significant players on the global and local stage of decision making (Anderson, 2000). We are now seeing the rise of powerful environmental lobbies which put pressure on policy and transitional corporations (Anderson, 2000).

Are protest and confrontational activism useful in today’s hyper-networked and increasingly corporate world(Lester, 2010)(Andreasen, 2006) in order to challenge banks and business on their environmentally or socially destructive actions? Protest and radical activist action doesn’t have to look like it used to – and it doesn’t have to play into the big business game either. Here we build the case that confrontational tactics are still relevant.

Confrontational tactics speak to the people

One way to approach businesses is to appeal to the CEOs – those in “power.” Yet confrontational tactics such as media stunts and marches get the conversation out of the boardrooms and around the kitchen table(Goldsbie, 2010). Theoretically, ordinary people – shareholders in banks and consumers of goods and services – are the ones who hold real power over a corporation’s work, if they can be engaged en masse. Coverage in the media of loud or contentious voices can catch the attention of a wider audience of people.

Confrontational tactics teach both the heart and mind           

Activism and education draw many connections; in challenging banks and business, activists seek to teach a new perspective and change behaviour(Orr, 1991;1996)(Walter, 2009). However, just as in education(Orr, 1991;1996), the how question in confrontational activism is extremely important, especially since corporations and audiences are smarter and savvier than ever. Environmental education centre Meadowcreek Project founder David Orr has a few things to say about effective teaching that are applicable to confrontational tactics(Orr, 1991;1996). Particularly pertinent is his insistence that increased knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate to better behaviour. Confrontational tactics that simply chant data and facts at people are often ineffective because these are meaningless without context. Orr says that effective education teaches values rather than theories – they engage the heart and not just the mind(Orr, 1991;1996). Confrontational tactics have the capacity to do this, but organizers must be strategic about it.

Activists must become well-versed in the workings of business and finance, while maintaining a solid understanding of what is wrong with them. Orr encourages all students of the environment to understand ecological economics concepts like the steady-state economy and other alternative ways of thinking about wealth and resources.

Confrontational tactics leave room for creativity

Being strategic involves employing a little creativity. With their “Art Attack!” campaign, the Toronto Public Space Committee reclaimed the visual landscape from corporations by drawing their own art and covering billboards and bus stop advertisements(Goldsbie, 2010). Creative tactics catch people’s attention, and speak not only to the direct stakeholders of a situation, but to a wider audience – hopefully speaking to hearts and minds to encourage widespread paradigm shift(Goldsbie, 2010).

Today’s confrontational environmental activist protests, organizes, and communicates in a world of scepticism, and mass media. Techniques that can engage the masses, by touching their hearts and minds and by thinking outside of the box, are still integral to creating positive change.


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