The Environmental Working Group Discusses Urban Environmentalism

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By Roger Tuan

In late September, Chicago DSA’s Environmental Working Group invited local environmental organizations to a discussion panel on climate change and urban environmentalism. Four panelists participated, each representing a different part of the advocacy continuum, from tried-and-true “Big Green” pragmatism to the direct-action vanguard seeking to “tugboat” the mainstream. A Q&A session followed, addressing moderator and audience questions.

Hard Lens Media filmed the whole panel. Watch it here.

Strategy & Tactics

When asked how local groups could help combat seemingly overwhelming climate issues, Jessica Fujan, Midwest Regional Director of Food & Water Watch said, “Anything is better than nothing. We don’t need PhDs in geology or climatology to demand humane solutions to problems caused by corporate greed and dirty politics. Environmental issues affect all of us. Water is a human right and everyone deserves access regardless of ability to pay.” Food & Water Watch uses diverse tactics, including grassroots advocacy, lobbying, lawsuits, protests, and marches.

“Double down on already-successful tactics”, concurred Tony Fuller, co-chair of the Chicago Sierra Club. The Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100” campaign seeks commitments from cities to switch to 100% renewable energy. The current local campaign hopes to flood Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office with petitions, asking him to sign Chicago onto the Ready for 100 pledge. If successful, Chicago would become the single largest city to have signed on.

At the neighborhood level, JustDesign co-op member Patrick Miller said trained environmentalists can apply their knowledge and expertise to help local communities—through solar power, environmental engineering, robotics, architecture, or whatever their field of expertise may be—but that this must done in cooperation with the community, and only after discussing their needs and better understanding their culture. Well-intentioned environmentalists should take care “not to trivialize social and community nuances as engineering homework problems.”

As an example, JustDesign partnered with the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) to distribute free water filters to communities impacted by lead-poisoned water pipes. Thinking ahead, however, Miller warns about future complications: “What good is a water filter if nobody in the community knows how to maintain it and when to replace the charcoal? There is no technology that fixes environmental problems indefinitely. The human element must be considered. Focus on education and communities, not a specific piece of technology.”

If the tactics above aren’t enough, Rising Tide Chicago and CDSA member Sean Estelle suggests a gradual escalation of actions. “Climate crisis isn’t going to go away just because a bunch of international dignitaries signed a piece of paper.” Estelle suggests starting with voting and petitions, then contacting representatives, then collaborating with possible allies, then possibly nonviolent direct action. “Direct action should be a last resort, not the first. It isn’t a mindless reaction, but a carefully-considered, strategic escalation of response,” Estelle emphasized. Participants must understand both big-picture strategy in a movement and individual roles within a specific action.

Estelle asks: Before a direct action is organized, have all other means been exhausted? Have all possible allies been contacted, have their mission compatibilities and differences been fully understood, and most importantly, has the impacted community expressed a desire for direct action? “Rising Tide doesn’t do direct action unless communities ask for it. Direct action follows long, peaceful struggle, and it is a last resort.”

At the individual level, Estelle continued, not everyone wants or is able to face arrest as part of a civic protest. Individual circumstance must be considered, and a clear separation of roles should be part of the direct action training: Who is going to get arrested? Who will help pre-action supplies and logistics or post-action jail support?

Elections & Representatives

Electoral politics were also discussed. “Get out the vote!” Fuller said.

“And get them out of office if they’re not listening!” said Miller, “Or run for office yourself.”

“People are feeling estranged from politics,” Fujan agreed, but “swaying the balance of power despite the reddening of the country is of vital importance. While the environmental movement is often considered a struggle, for many maddeningly good reasons, it’s important to remember you are not alone, and there are many moments of joy in the movement too.”

Speaking broadly, Miller added, “Elected officials don’t really care about [environmental and socialist] causes and values. They care about power. If we don’t keep up the pressure, they’ll just dismiss our values, wait us out, and move on. But they’re only here for two, maybe four, years. We’ll be here as long as we need to. Apply consistent pressure and yell as loud as possible, as long as possible. Force them to respond and don’t let them be comfortable. In government, five years [for something to change] is considered quick.”

As an example, Estelle mentioned the new mayor of Jackson, MI, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who won a recent landslide victory (93 percent of the vote) for the progressive movement, but only after 40 years of his father Chokwe Lumumba’s community organizing work. The elder Lumumba levied a citywide tax in order to pay for repairs to the city’s aging sewer system, but in doing so, he first had to create a strong grassroots coalition that supported the cause. Victories are the results of long-term efforts.

Organizing Methods, Tools, and Metrics of Effectiveness

Another audience question asked how to gauge the success of campaigns.

“First ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve,” Fuller said. When the Sierra Club evaluated its 2017 actions, it decided to double down on its most effective campaigns. “[What we’re doing worked.] But we needed to get more people involved, broaden our reach, and get people more strongly motivated. Were we unintentionally excluding anyone?”

Estelle continued, “[You must have a] theory of change—we want X to happen, which will lead to Y and Z. Clearly articulate this thought process.” Campaigns need measurable goals and an understanding of tactics, whether that’s driving a centrist organization towards the left (“tugboating”) or escalating a movement towards direct action. Participants need to be trained and understand the rationale behind strategies and specific actions.

For further learning, Fujan had two book recommendations: Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky and Organizing for Social Change by Kim Bobo, which Fujan described as “more technical, less rhetorical” than Rules.

Working with Frontline Communities Dependent on Fossil Fuels

How could environmentalists work with communities that are both impacted by and dependent on fossil fuels or other extractive industries?

“It’s a challenge,” Fuller admitted. “The Sierra Club’s proposals always try to include this analysis: How do we plan for job transitions? Can we help create an alternative energy economy? Add union jobs?”

Fujan added, “Find common ground from your personal history and focus on issues, not politics. For example, I grew up in a pig farming community in Minnesota. Some Republican areas are also climate-sensitive. In a heavily Tea Party district, a union leader invited Food & Water Watch to do an environmental training. Tea Partiers aren’t evil or uneducated. Don’t alienate people unnecessarily. Find common ground.”

Fujan continued with advice for urban activists working in rural areas: First try to understand neighborhood dynamics of the small towns you’re campaigning in, the nuances of their communities, and the corporations that influence them. As for unions, the Left is generally pro-union, but it’s important to remember that there is also corruption within unions. It’s not a zero-sum game and union leadership should be kept accountable to the rank-and-file. Give voice to the community members; you are supporting their fight, and they should be the face of the movement and at the forefront of organized actions.

Security Culture and Privacy

Estelle discussed a nuance of “security culture” in activist organizing. They recognized a need for high security in certain situations, such as using encrypted communications during escalated direct actions, but also emphasized balance in everyday situations. “Security culture, [taken to an extreme], can result in a culture of distrust, reinforcing cliques and exacerbating splits based on geography or seniority within a movement.” This creates an environment where newcomers feel unwelcome and untrusted, and conversations become dominated by security concerns instead of issue advocacy. “It’s a cost-benefit analysis: Understand when and why security is needed, but trust is ultimately a social issue, not a technological one. Nothing beats talking in person with people and building relationships with them.”