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The Next Environmental Movement
Alex Steffen, 27 Jan 04

With some encouragement, I've written up and posted (below, in the extended entry) some notes on ideas I've been kicking around about how the environmental movement could adapt to new tools and the opportunities they present. Rough draft. Feedback welcome.

The British military historian Liddell-Hart noted, in reference to the creation of the tank, the Blitzkrieg, and armored warfare in general that some strategic innovations do not just change the balance of power between the two sides in the game, they change the game itself.

I’ve been dealing with environmental groups and media – first as a reporter, later as a media consultant, most recently as a writer whose subject is in part the fate of that movement – for almost fifteen years now (Gadzooks! I’m old.), and I am convinced that distributed collaboration is exactly such a strategic innovation. In fact, I’ll go farther: I think in ten years there will be environmental groups which have wholeheartedly embraced collaboration, ones which no longer exist, and ones which are too small to matter.

I don’t have space here to explain what distributed collaboration is or why its important – if you’re just tuning in, there are a good hundred entries on this site which will get you raring up to speed: go read the archives. Instead, I’m going to suggest the way I see the game changing. (This might be a good place to thank Markos Zuniga and Jon Stahl for encouraging me to publish these ideas. Thanks, fellas!) So, the new rules:

Administration is a necessary precondition, but meaningless in itself. Using computers to generate mailing lists, manage databases, publish an online newsletter, or accept online donations – that’s child’s play. You’d better be able to do those things, but doing them, in itself, leaves you little better off than the opposition group next door which is still using paper, ink and filing cabinets. A static website with a listserve sign-up and a “donate” button is a piss-poor use of revolutionary technology – rather like pounding nails with your hard drive.

“Don’t hate the media… become the media.” Notices of the death of conventional media have been slightly exaggerated. Earned media coverage (and paid, where you can afford it) are still valuable (though the value of any particular media “hit” has unquestionably declined). At the same time, it has never been more within the grasp of the environmental movement to create its own media, to tell its own stories and to find its own audiences.

I think this is job one for every environmental group out there: tell your stories better, yourself. What are the tools for this job? Well, certainly, blogging. Even a simple online journal connects members, potential members and funders to your organization and its people in a way that no static webpage ever will. But blogging is only the first step. There are also audio, video and self-publishing tools. It’s pretty easy for even a small nonprofit to create its own documentaries, record its own interviews and publish its own reports.

Much more to the point, it’s getting easier to help your members and allies do the same. It’s getting easier and easier to create collaborative media (and media response teams) – to have staff edit a blog of news items found and submitted by members, and of interest to other members; to encourage action on specific items (for example, suggesting that folks email the editor of a smalltown paper whose coverage has been one-sided); to tell better stories about what’s at stake (by, for example, posting a digital video clip of how eroded a recent clearcut is, or an audio interview with a family whose children are victims of a toxic release); to, in short, capture people’s imaginations and inform their understandings in ways that were damn hard to do five years ago. And if you do it right, volunteers do much of the work themselves.

You are not here to organize. You are here to introduce. This is a retelling of Joi Ito’s rule, you’re not a leader, you’re a place. What it means is that in this new media ecology, people aren’t interested in you telling them what to do, they’re interested in being involved in new relationships with others, being connected to other people who care about the things they themselves think matter. Groups which speak to their members in the abstract won’t have members in the long term: groups which find ways of creating a sense of community to which those members wish to belong will do very well indeed.

How do you do this? The two big sets of tools are community-building tools, like Scoop, and social software programs, like Tribe and LinkedIn. None of them are perfect, or frankly even very good. One of our first jobs ought perhaps to be starting a collaboration to build a new suite of open source community-building tools for the environmental movement.

But what can be done is a separate issue from the quality of tools available to do it. What we can do is two-fold: we can build online spaces in which large numbers of people can communicate and collaborate, and we can create tools for supporters to use to manage their online relationships and the flow of information they’re getting. In the best world, the two systems would flow together.

Place is the key. Environmentalism is, to steal Dan Kemmis’s phrase, the politics of place. While there are some geniuses among us who can keep the global picture always at mind, who really can think globally, most of us care about a very small number of places: where we live, where we recreate, and, perhaps, some special places we’ve visited or dreamed of visiting.

Providing people with information about those places is getting easier and easier. I mean, there are incredibly powerful tools at our fingertips in the form of GPS, GIS, remote sensing, distributed sensor nets and the like, and if funders really knew their business, they’d be dumping money on smart folks who do this stuff. Ditto for wireless technologies.

But I’m talking about something more mundane, for the moment, the kind of place-based information that can be distributed through the clever use of zipcodes and hiking trail names. General information, readily-available, about what’s happening near you and the places you care about. THAT would be so easy to do that it’s almost criminal that it hasn’t been done. That would also facilitate face-to-face meetings, and out-in-the-world activities, the kinds of human interaction that build friendships and commitment, sort of Meet-ups for the environmental movement.

Sheep that shit grass. A fifth key rule is that, done properly, building networks creates a network effect where results increase with more participants (Metcalfe’s Law, for those in the know). One group doing this stuff is at an advantage: twenty doing it together are on their way towards redefining a movement.

New tools need new craftsman. While small groups can probably designate someone in-house to learn and support new strategies, larger groups are going to need to hire people, and hire people who know what they’re doing: people who know how to blog, and build community online and facilitate collaborations. These skills can certainly be spread in the environmental community, but doing this stuff well is not the work of a single training session.

In another post, I’ll discuss my idea for GreenSpace – a model for how a regional environmental community could adopt and implement these tools together. I'll also talk about the role of collaborative design.

In the meantime, what do you think?

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All interesting stuff, but I see little that's specific to environmental groups. These issues are the same for most, if not all, issue-based advocacy campaigns.

Posted by: Joe on 27 Jan 04

First, re: place based information: Actually it is being done -- or at least in part -- by
In particular, through their tool "zoomer" which they are licensing to organizations like mine:
Which also allows people to comment on things they find in the tool.

I believe they are also working on social networking stuff as well -- but more along the lines of dating than organizing, and I'm not sure if it connects at all with things like zoomer.

It ain't great by any stretch, but it has been started.

Posted by: adrian on 27 Jan 04


Thanks for the zoomer tip. It isn't perfect, no (in fact, it delivered me nothing but error messages...). But it is cool to see that folks are at least beginning to embrace the possibilities there.

Check out tag and scan
or urban tapestries, too...

Other suggestions, comments, responses?

Posted by: Alex on 27 Jan 04

Mister Franklin's Folks

Mister Franklin’s Folks began when a small group of people decided to bring a solar fountain to the local farmers markets, swap meets, and outdoor community events and began to generate public power. Each week, they’d float the solar electric panel and pump on the water in a tub and the little fountain would splash and spray. The brighter the sunshine the higher the water would go. Children loved to turn it on and off with their shadows, jumping into and and out of the sunlight , making the water dance and themselves laugh. Older kids asked questions and so did some of the adults. “What’s it for? How does it work? Why are you doing this? So what?”

The exhibit was labeled, “Solar Fountain/Wishing Well” and some coins lay at the bottom of the tub. There was a big can labeled “Donations” on the table under the shade of an awning or umbrella where one of Franklin’s Folk sat with a portable computer and a collection of books, pamphlets, leaflets, cards, and stickers. The car, van or truck parked behind them was full of working models and public experiments, product demos and testing equipment. The computer had a wireless connection to the Internet and could print out paper copy or burn a CD. For a donation.

Each week, from Memorial Day to the week before Thanksgiving, throughout the farmers market season, they’d be there . Each week, they’d set up the solar fountain and present a different demonstration of solar ingenuity and practical power. When they said power to the people, they meant it. 

The Franklin Folk said “Your south-facing window is already a solar collector but we can show you how to use it.” They provided designs and projects that began by caulking and sealing and ended with a complete one room, one window HVAC and electrical system for daily and/or emergency use.

They liked the little solar/dynamo radio/flashlights that were out then. “A solar/dynamo and a set of rechargable batteries is a perpetual source of personal AA electrical power - at least until the batteries wear out. You should have power as long as the sun keeps shining, you can turn the handcrank and the batteries hold a charge. And when the batteries die, all you have to do is go out and buy some new ones. That is, unless we’ve changed to fuel cells or flywheels by then.”

“If you have a bicycle or exercise equipment, you can probably install a generator device and provide another lifetime supply of AA power from that, too!” They had the plans so you could do it yourself and a bulk buying club so that people could save money on parts and supplies. “Let your kids make their own battery power from sunight and a little exercise. Power your Walkman with a walk on the treadmill.”

They did simple experiments like the one with three boxes of air - three small, transparent, sealed boxes all the same size, each with a thermometer. They set them out in the sun - one box totally transparent, one box covered in white insulation board except for the side facing the sun, the third box with black insulation board. Two thermometers measured the temperature of the outdoor air, one in the sunlight and another in the shade. The Franklin Folk at the table could display the day’s results for you on the computer in a variety of different ways.

They called themselves Mister Franklin’s Folks because, like Benjamin Franklin, they believed in ingenuity and thrift. They quoted Poor Richard:

A penny saved is two pence clear. A pin a-day is a groat a year. Save and have.

Every little makes a mickle.

A wise Man will desire no more than what he may get justly, use soberly, distribute cheerfully and leave contentedly.

Spare and have is better than spend and crave.

Like Mr Franklin, they were experimenting with electricity but instead of kites and lightning, they were looking at the sun for energy independence and building the idea of a renewable economy use by use, appliance by appliance, socket by socket, room by room.

One day, one of Mr Franklin's Folk pointed back at their car and said, "This car is now a hybrid vehicle. We modified it to charge an extra battery and can switch that battery with one in the house to run another room or part of the household. Many of us Franklin Folk are reducing our electricl bills considerably. Eventually we want to use the the grid only for back-up and you can too. With the money we save,we'll be able to install enough solar electric panels so we can begin to run the meter backwards and the electric company will have to pay us."

Other days, they had information on how to keep a pantry and food storage. Not only did they teach people how to can and salt and dry foods but they also helped organize buying clubs and bulk purchases in season to save everybody money and help the farmers in the local agricultural system steady their income and cashflow. At the farmers market they displayed maps of all the agricultural resources in the state - farmers markets, pick-your-owns, farmstands, CSAs, community gardens and farms, coops, buying clubs, community kitchens, food pantries and feeding programs. They had composting and worm farming demonstrations, taught gardeners how to lengthen their growing seasons, and encouraged the public planting of fruit trees and berry bushes throughout the city and town.

“Spare and have is better than spend and crave.”

"A wise Man will desire no more than what he may get justly, use soberly, distribute cheerfully and leave contentedly."

"Every little makes a mickle."

"A penny saved is two pence clear. A pin a-day is a groat a year. Save and have."

They quoted Poor Richard's old home truths but put them into an ecological survival context. Each week they offered practical lessons in real thrift or how to save a fortune while saving the environment, the community, and the world.

"Franklin established the oldest working cooperative in the United States, the Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss Against Fire in 1752. It was called the Hand-in-Hand, after the symbol of four hands grasping four wrists in a form commonly known as a Jacob's Chair. It was their fire mark, a sign they put on the houses they insured so that their volunteer fire department would know which houses it had responsibility for. A volunteer fire department not associated with the Hand-in-Hand would just let the buildling burn.

How might Mister Franklin be doing business these days?

Benjamin Franklin was one of the early researchers into the Gulf Stream. How would he deal with global warming and the ozone hole, let alone local pollution? He invented an odometer to set up postal routes and was the first postmaster general of the United States. How do you think he'd feel about the Internet? He published the first political cartoon in North America and refused the job of writing the Declaration of Independence because he would not be edited by anyone but himself. 

Benjamin Franklin was a printer, writer, editor, newspaper, magazine, and book publisher. How do you think he would have felt about modern news outlets?

These were some of the things Mr. Franklin’s Folks brought to their table at the farmer’s market or church social and neighborhood celebration week after week all that year.

Posted by: gmoke on 27 Jan 04



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