A remarkable chance exists right now to accelerate the climate justice movement. President Trump is moving to speed up pipeline construction just as the public is waking up to the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This is exactly the moment to move pipeline fights to a new level, by meeting the need for networking.
One of the authors of this article, George Lakey, encountered this need while touring the country for his new book “How We Win.” He found people active in their local fight to stop an oil or gas pipeline and asked how they connect with other campaigns. He also asked how they learn about what works and how their local campaign links to the national situation. He heard the same answer over and over: They found it difficult to connect widely or get a big picture.
This means local organizers are likely doing things that have previously failed when tried by other pipeline campaigns. It also means they may be inventing effective new methods that others have no way to hear about.
Locals told George that the few websites reporting on campaigns do it selectively, more with an eye toward fundraising than to what is useful for local organizers. What’s more, they aren’t finding a wide and comprehensive view of how the many pipeline campaigns are doing.
In short, local campaigners can’t find out what works and what doesn’t, and aren’t gaining a larger sense of the collective effort of struggles like their own.
Some sharing does happen
Some people bring lessons from one campaign to another, as bees bring pollen to plants. One such person is Rose Tompkins, a Sioux activist who got involved with the Standing Rock campaign in 2016 — then brought the knowledge she gained from that experience to local pipeline struggles in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In one place she worked with white people to re-frame their inclination toward using specifically Christian terms, urging them to broaden their movement to include spiritual people. That way, people like her, who associate Christianity with colonization, would feel more welcome. In another situation, she was able to support indigenous tribal leaders whose leadership was disrespected by some white people.
Judy Wicks, the other author of this article, also used her experience at Standing Rock to help pollinate subsequent campaigns. After finding inspiration in the thousand-year-old Lakota prophecy of a Black Snake that comes out of the ground to lay waste to the land, she came home to Philadelphia and saw her state in a new light — namely, as the center of fracking and pipeline construction. She also found that others in her community were stimulated by the drama in North Dakota. So she engaged in civil disobedience and got arrested with Lancaster Against Pipelines — a campaign organized by local people who’d been to Standing Rock. Since then, pipeline struggles have played a key role in Pennsylvania politics. In fact, eight new officials were elected to the state legislature in 2018 after refusing to accept fossil fuel money.
One of the things Judy brought with her to Pennsylvania was the Standing Rock practice of connecting disruptive actions with the spirit of love. While in North Dakota, she witnessed — after a spurt of police violence — indigenous campaigners parading by the sheriff’s office in “forgiveness marches.” Judy also met indigenous youths who’d learned that police were short on supplies. Because campaign supporters at that time had sent an abundance of supplies, the youths shared sodas and hand-warmers with the police.
She learned that a very long pipeline under construction, like the Keystone XL, may have local campaigns along the route that need more support from outside their area. This prompted her to begin fundraising for the New Orleans struggle led by indigenous Creoles and others called the L’eau Est La Vie campaign, which was protesting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.
Spontaneous travelers like Rose Tompkins and Judy help the networking process, but their assistance is random. The larger movement, serious about winning, makes a system intervention, ensuring that everyone is learning as rapidly as possible. This requires the resources of a national green organization.
Learning is natural but intentionality adds power
When leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott were chosen in 1955, they telephoned Louisiana to quiz the organizers of a bus boycott in Baton Rouge two years prior. The student sit-in movement of 1960-61 was so successful partly because students from many campuses were in touch with each other.
George remembers a 1999 phone call from a student friend inviting him to a dorm to observe a campus steering committee’s strategizing. Students were campaigning to stop the University of Pennsylvania from buying paraphernalia made by sweatshops in the Global South.
George noticed throughout the evening students coming in with “the latest” from other campuses who were waging similar campaigns. He watched others’ experiences enrich Penn students’ strategizing. The campaigns were being networked by the United Students Against Sweatshops, or USAS.
At the same time, USAS encouraged each campus to try its own experiments and report the results. When Penn students found it difficult to stir the massive student body, they increased the drama of their campaign by disrobing. They gained more attention.
Movements arise from multiple campaigns on a similar issue: civil rights (the bus boycotts and sit-ins), economic justice (shutting down sweatshops), climate justice (stopping pipelines). Effective movements put resources into learning from what works and what doesn’t. They value innovation at the campaign level and enliven horizontal communication.
Effective movements discard tactics that are of little or no value, like most one-off demonstrations and tired rallies. They move away from street blockades that irritate people who need to join us. Movements learn that their most creative campaigns juice the movement, attract new allies and enable them to win.
Effective movements support their campaigns to debrief their actions, organize trainings, hold strategy retreats, set clear goals, assess results and learn rapidly from each other. They are especially attractive to young people whose orientation is to skill-development and effectiveness, and therefore grow leadership for the larger struggles to come. They are more likely to have inter-generational participation, which in turn sustains them through down-times and helps them grow.
The anti-pipeline movement could go to a new level if a national organization became intentional, supporting connection and learning.
The green movement has done it before
Synergy is a name for what happens when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. An example is the struggle against nuclear power in the 1960s and ‘70s. The movement consisted of many local direct action campaigns that had educated the public to the existence of safer and lower-cost alternatives. When Three-Mile Island started to melt down in 1979, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back: The pro-nuclear establishment was beaten. The goal of the U.S. economic elite was 1,000 nuclear power plants. Of that number, 253 were ordered and of those, about half were cancelled.
As organizer Will Lawrence has pointed out, some of the local anti-nuke campaigns were successful before the meltdown, and some were not, but the broader movement succeeded. In this way nonviolent campaigns are like military battles: Some can lose while others win, and the overall result can be victory.
The local campaigns in the anti-nukes movement were connected to each other. Leaders in the Keystone Alliance, a Pennsylvania-based campaign, knew the odds were against stopping their local plant. They also knew that their fight was important because they had a big picture.
As a result, they campaigned hard and were able to block one of the two reactors that was planned. They sustained years of effort because, in addition to the big picture, a web of communication kept them close to campaigners in other places.
This historic moment makes connectivity crucial
Today’s mass media situation leaves journalists less able to help us than before. They occasionally share the drama of a Standing Rock, but even then can’t publish most of what an organizer wants to know.
Anti-pipeline campaigns are often attacked as NIMBY, or “Not in my back yard,” sowing seeds of hesitation on the part of local activists who do see some truth to the charge. Even though they know some local campaigners for whom it is only a backyard issue, they will re-double their efforts by knowing they are part of a larger climate justice struggle.
Sharp strategy comes from a bigger map of power. Knowing which banks are financing which pipelines, which prominent office-holders and other figures are corrupted, which companies are already in trouble in other states, opens the door to new potential allies and tactics.
A big picture helps funders who give strategically. Perhaps pipeline fights are more successful in one region than another. If that’s the case, some funders might step up their support where it’s more needed. After a campaign wins a victory, the big picture can attract the local funders of that campaign to turn to bolstering other campaigns still in the midst of struggle. As the saying goes, “Nothing succeeds like success!”
This sense of solidarity isn’t available only on a funding level: Organizers of a winning campaign might be more available to travel to other campaigns to join strategy discussions and share their experience.
Supporting the national movement to regain the offensive
Acting defensively is disastrous strategically. Nevertheless it is hard for environmentalists, as well as many other progressive organizations, to shake a habit of going on the defense which began in the Ronald Reagan days of the 1980s.
Going on the offensive now could include, for example, demanding a reconstructed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. The fossil fuel industry uses FERC as its tool, and we need to take it from them. That’s the kind of demand no local campaign could win, but a multi-year national-level campaign would have a chance.
When we dare to consider going on the offensive we can remember the civil rights movement at its height: lively local campaigns nationally connected, giving the national organization opportunity to weave together a shared narrative. It’s that shared narrative that could, in the green context, support both the Green New Deal and keeping the carbon in the ground.
Our proposal to connect the campaigns aligns with our understanding of how ecology works: moving to a new level of organizational complexity makes it possible to occupy a wider ecological niche. That is what we propose here: moving to a network of local campaigns makes it possible to have a greater influence on national climate policy.
What’s not to like?