Environmentalists Need Strategy. Saul Alinsky and the Green Movement.

Image credit: Christ Centered Mall
Being right is not enough. We have to win too.
From Dark Mountain's rejection of environmentalism, through the dangers of disasterbation, to an obsession with individual impact as opposed to collective action, I can't help feeling like much of the green movement is missing something.

And that something is strategy. I've mentioned my recurring fear before that I will end up in a yurt, sitting around as the ecosystems we rely on for survival collapse all around us. With me will be an intrepid band of environmentalists. And we'll all be patting ourselves on the back because we weren't the ones responsible for the destruction.

I'm afraid this scenario is not so far fetched. Whether it's activists protesting luxury green condos after construction has begun (as opposed to during the planning process), or eco-nags indulging in passive aggressive preaching, there seem to be an awful lot of environmentalists for whom the fight is an end in itself.

But ultimately the success of environmentalism will not be judged on whether we were right or not. It will be judged on whether we managed to halt, and even reverse, the threats that environmental destruction and resource depletion pose to our way of life and, possibly, our survival. And central to that success, or failure, will be our ability to view the challenges we face through a strategic lens. But what does that lens look like?

I may be in danger of perpetuating the myth that environmentalism is socialist here, but in discussing the importance of strategy with a veteran activist friend of mine, he urged me to check out the work of community organizing pioneer Saul Alinsky. I think he may have been on to something.

For one thing, many greens would do well to take on Alinsky's insistence that self-doubt is vital:

"...I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it's Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated."

I'm not saying that greens should question whether protecting the environment makes sense or not—that much, to me at least, is obvious. But we should remain open to discussing what the best way to do that is. From nuclear power to carbon offsets to geo-engineering, the threat of climate change is such that no option should be dismissed on ideological grounds alone. Only whether it works or not.

That question of whether something works or not points to another central tenet of Alinsky's organizing principles - namely, you have to pick your battles, and those battles have to be winnable. It might be attractive, even romantic, for some greens to cast themselves as the tragic hero, battling against all odds for what's morally right. But with so many battles to pick, and such high stakes at hand, folks would do well to learn from Alinsky's relentless focus on strategic, targeted battles that forced change effectively, but incrementally - neighborhood by neighborhood, and issue by issue.

From my limited reading so far, whether or not you agree with Alinsky's political stances, there is much to be learned from his strategic vision. (Our current president would no-doubt agree.)

So let's open it up to the floor. What does a winning strategy look like for the green movement? Is Alinsky's work a useful model? And are there other strategic thinkers—be they from corporate, philosophical, military or sports—that we could learn from? You know where the comments box is...

Tags: Activism | United States