Elites or Equals?An Organizational Psychologist Speaks to the “Climate” Movement
Jim Driscoll, Ph. D., M.B.A.
Executive Director, National Institute for Peer Support, 501(c)(3)
1300 “N” Street, NW, Suite 114, Washington, DC 20005
Elites Won’t Get It Done. From an organizational psychology perspective, “how” we organize ourselves and our finances to accomplish our goals is as important as “what” we seek to accomplish. Currently we in the movement to stop global warming rely primarily on an “elites”-based organizing strategy imitating large, profit-seeking corporations. “Big Green”and now increasingly “Big Climate” organizations hire permanent and professional staff, raise big-budgets and decide strategy centrally. Increasingly, activists and academics are questioning the effectiveness of that elitist strategy ( Belalial, H., 2013; Skocpol, T., 2013).
Racial segregation props up this elitist strategy. Our current movement divides us by race into a white “climate” and “sustainability” movement and an “environmental justice” movement composed mostly of people targeted by racism, i.e. people of color or, more accurately, people of the global and soon-to-be U.S. majority (Fears, D., 2013.)
Not only is the “elites” strategy less effective, it actually makes global warming worse by reinforcing the individualistic, consumerist ideology causing the problem in the first place.
Equals As An Alternative. Fortunately, poor people, people of color and volunteer, grassroots activists all over the world and over the centuries have developed an alternative model based on treating each other as equals; as members of groups, not just as individuals and as human beings with feelings well as intellects. Often termed “horizontalist,” I prefer calling it an “equals”-based strategy as a less imposing term. Indeed, the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Occupy Movement in the U.S., the Indignatos in Spain, the takeovers of the Squares in Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere, factory takeovers in Argentina and the commune movement in Venezuela have brought recent attention to the power of that tradition of equals. Over the last fifty years, the environmental justice, anti-nuclear power, old-growth forest protection and other grassroots movements have led this effort here in the United States. This essay is based on my research and personal experience in the U.S. although this critique appears global.
An Academic Critique. As a Harvard-Cornell-and-MIT-trained Organizational Psychologist and a thirty-two year, full-time, social change activist, I have both academic and experience-based criticisms of the climate movement’s current “elites” organizing strategy. Let me begin with the academic. When I studied large, profit-seeking corporations as a Professor of Management at M.I.T., but influenced by critical thinkers like William Ryan (1971)and William Gamson (1968), I detected a profound difference between the assumptions underlying how corporations managed their “human resources,” a. k. a. workers, and the realities of empirical research on how human beings actually behave in work organizations (J.W. Driscoll, 1980.) The corporations utilized an :elites”strategy based on the assumption that individuals determine organizational performance, primarily through their intellectual skills. Therefore, the corporations seek to recruit a few “water-walkers”, train those select few intensely, give them great influence and pay them higher salaries based on their subjectively-appraised “performance.” In practice these assumptions result in the hierarchical structure characteristic of the “elites” strategy. By contrast, the empirical research which I and many others have conducted contradict these assumptions (see my summary of the research cited above.) Individual behavior in organizations profoundly reflects the influence of small groups. Situational differences often outweigh individual effort. Emotions often trump intellectual skills. Indeed, it is impossible to identify objectively anything called “individual performance” in a human organization. The empirical reality of organizational life supports an “equals” model for social-change change organizations as described in Table 1. Effective social change movements need to engage every individual and not rely of a few great (usually) men. Groups need to be formed and supported more than just individuals. At least as much attention needs to be paid to emotional factors as intellectual analysis.
Indeed, over the last seventy years, organizational psychologists and others working largely in those same profit-oriented corporations have implemented and documented, the greater effectiveness of innovations reflecting an “equals” strategy such as “job enlargement,” “job rotation,” “team-based production” and “organizational development” (Driscoll, J.W., 1979; Hackman, J.R. and J.L. Suttle, 1977.) However, despite their documented effectiveness, these innovations have repeatedly been limited or abandoned by large corporations, at least in part because they the conflict with the dominant ideological values of individual-based performance and compensation. In practice, corporations have applied these “equals” innovations primarily as part of “anti-union” strategies as corporations shifted their manufacturing operations from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Southwest. In other applications, these innovations are often limited to higher paid, technical and managerial workers. As one of its dirty little secrets, the business world chooses “elites” structures based purely on ideological grounds, not to maximize productivity. Unfortunately, graduate students and young professors learn early that publication and promotion require adopting this “elites” paradigm. It reflects the individualistic, pseudo-meritocratic ideology of our society, not the empirical research or theoretical insights of organizational psychology. Yet, precisely this individualistic ideology fuels the excesses of our consumerist society and the climate-destroying policies of individual executives maximizing the returns of their stockholders and their own individual compensation. We will not stop global warming by imitating the corporate structure which is causing the problem.
As noted above, a long and distinguished academic tradition has criticized the choice of an “elites” organizing strategies by the environmental, climate or broader social-change movement community. Harvard’s Theda Skocpol, former President of the American Political Science Association, has blamed the general failure of social change organizations in the U.S. over the last fifty years precisely on their reliance on permanently paid-professional staff rather than grassroots volunteers(2003.) More recently she has leveled a similar criticism at the climate movement specifically (2013.) Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward criticized “elites” models in their assessment of several different “poor peoples’ movements” including labor unions (1977). Robert Michels helped launch this critique within academic sociology in1915 with his investigation of why the largest socialist party in the world abandoned its principled opposition to “capitalist” wars and supported entry into World War I (1915.) Anarchist scholars here and in Europe have long criticized not just the state but “elites” strategies in general (Kropotkin, P., 1914; Bookchin, M. 1971; Chomsky, N., 2005.) Here in the U.S., activists from the Global Majority, i. e. people of color, in the Environmental Justice movement have long criticized “Big Green” environmental organizations for their top-down strategies (Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, 2007). This EJ. critique has recently been taken up more broadly by grassroots climate activists (Belalia, H., 2013.) It is clear to many of us that the climate movement must adopt more of an “equals” strategy if it is to succeed, including taking on the whole system of oppressions beginning with racism and de-emphasizing reliance on paid, professional staff.
Thirty-two Years of Elite Organizing. My thirty-two years of experience as a full-time, social-change activist also supports this academic critique. Before reviewing that experience, I want to honor the well-intentioned people who worked with me in these efforts. We chose an “elites” approach because it “was in the water.” We learned it in our families, our religions, our schools, the military, our workplaces, sports teams, entertainment—and from so-called “experts” on organizational structure. All too often these “experts” were paid by wealthy donors and their foundations, despite their inevitable bias in favor of the model used by the large corporations which are the source of their wealth. We thought it would work. Indeed, I have raised $28 million over the years, almost exclusively to pay permanent staff including myself (since that is what we do in “social change movements”) and set up relatively”elites” organizations. Current climate activists do not have the excuse of ignorance. Indeed, the phrase “professional environmentalist” is an oxymoron. Anyone permanently paid by an environmental or climate organization is weakening, whether consciously or not, our movement and lessening our chances for eventual success.
This extreme claim is the sad reflection of my thirty years of experience working in “elites” social-change organizations. Originally, I quit my job at MIT in 1982 as an angry, anti-war, Vietnam, combat veteran, to work full-time in the peace movement, specifically as a volunteer in the originally all-volunteer nuclear weapons freeze. We brought over a million people to Central Park on June 12, 1982, (as I heard the police radio estimate while I passed out fliers) easily the biggest, most powerful social movement of the last three decades. An overwhelming majority of the electorate favored a bilateral halt to the nuclear arms race. However, once the Freeze hired paid staff (including me!) and opened an office in Washington, DC, we took the advice of other DC-based “disarmament professionals” and settled for a nonbinding, “sense of the Congress” Resolution exhorting an end to the nuclear arms race, i. e. nothing. We failed to halt that race, but we launched a bevy of hierarchical, staffed organizations, many of which still exist. Unfortunately, the danger of nuclear war may well be greater now, than when we launched that movement. Indeed, the only concrete accomplishment of that movement came ten years later with a ban on all funding of U.S. nuclear weapons testing. A largely-volunteer effort in Oregon which I helped support elected one key Member of Congress who capitalized on all that popular opinion and, at his constituents direction (with the long-delayed support of the Democratic leadership), walked that binding piece of legislation through the Congress.
After the decline of all things peace-related after the Gulf War I U.S. slaughter of Iraqis, I turned from the peace movement to multi-issue power-building for social change. Beginning with health care from 1992-4, we inadvertently played out a similar storyline. A majority of the U.S. population has long believed that health care is a right and favored “Medicare for All” or “single payer” health insurance like the Canadian system. Bill Clinton’s election gave hope to our professionally-staffed organization. Unlike some of our more volunteer-based allies, we decided to “work with them,” i.e. the Clintons, and not insist on single payer (which Bill and Hillary had taken off the table in prior meetings with the health insurance companies). We loved it when Bill and Hillary sought to cover 100% of the population; worried when it slipped to 90%; and cried when it got to 80% and ultimately failed. Our successor organization (which I helped found) played a comparable role backing Obama Care despite its early giveaways of single payer to the health insurance industry and price controls to the prescription drug companies (and therefore likely long-range difficulties dwarfing even its early problems.) Again, a number of non-profits continue to thrive financially based on their involvement with the President in the health-care struggle despite their failure to solve the underlying problem of affordable health care for all.
In the Clean Elections movement, as part of that same multi-issue power-building strategy, for three years during the mid-90s, I led the successful campaign to win full, public funding for all state elections in Arizona. However, after our victory, the national organizations funding that victory withdrew their support from the more progressive wing of the local coalition which had led the campaign. They wanted Arizona as a showpiece victory in a conservative state, indeed, the home of Senator John McCain. Apparently, they did not want an example of public funding of elections helping to build progressive political power in such a conservative state. Indeed, for the centrist-seeking national coalition, that would be a bad example. Again, the professionally-staffed, hierarchical organizations supporting Clean Elections continue to thrive even as the state-by-state strategy which we spearheaded has largely failed.
Again and again, my now thirty-two years of experience has supported the criticism advanced here (cf. Stauber, J., 2013.) Permanently-paid staff inevitably put their own careers before the mission of the organization. Organizations compromise their mission to raise funds and continue functioning. Free market competition for funding works no better in capitalist society for choosing the direction of social change movements than it does for any other purpose. Even as I was fortunate to take part in many “successful” campaigns (stopping U.S. nuclear-weapons weapons testing, winning full public funding for elections in AZ and helping thousands of returning vets overcome PTSD and get more involved in social change), at the same time, in the big picture our society headed towards disaster for most of us economically and for all of us environmentally. While working on these and many other campaigns, I have gradually sought to improve the model of social change organizing I saw around me.
Peer Support As An Improvement. Initially, my attempts to improve social change reflected my experience outside these social-change organizations. Over the last three decades, I had also turned to “equals”-oriented communities in my personal life: twenty-five years in a non-professional recovery network to deal with the addiction to compulsive overeating I developed on my return from combat in Vietnam (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939); thirty-two years in peer co-counseling (Reevaluation Counseling, H. Jackins, 1965) to which I turned for help in making the transition from college professor to activist; and thirty-four years in “un-programmed”, i.e. peer-led, Quaker Meetings (mostly silent, without a preacher) where I retreat each week to reflect and strategize. Each of these peer-support communities involves the simple practice of people taking uninterrupted turns listening to each other with encouragement to express feelings, even strong ones. In addition to the emotional support derived from peers, these three personal growth communities had also applied the basic idea of taking equal turns to carrying on discussions and making decisions, as will be described below. Over the decades, I would periodically try these tools of peer support from my personal life in my social change work and often found them helpful. Eventually, I concluded that there was a simple model from the personal-growth world of peer support might also enhance the effectiveness of our social change efforts.
So, after twenty years as a full-time social-change activist, I set up a small nonprofit in 2004 to make these tools of peer support more broadly available to the social-change movement (www.NIPSPeerSupport.org.) In our first major project, we focused very successfully on returning U.S. veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. So successfully, in fact, that we set up a separate organization, Vets4Vets to carry on that program under the direction of an almost entirely, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Board. Lacking a full appreciation of the present analysis, yet again, I set up a permanently-staffed and hence “elites” organization. For six, very successful years, we helping thousands of vets deal with the stress of combat and become more active in social change. We brought 2,500 vets to 85 residential, weekend training workshops with thousands more in local peer support groups in more than forty cities (for peer-reviewed results, see MacEachron and Gunderson, 2012.) Over time, however, we were unable to raise funds for the headquarters staff, despite the availability of copious funding for local staff and workshops across the country, especially in Texas. After years of my warning our Board, as Executive Director with the support of the Board Executive Committee, I decided to shift operations to Texas. However, the AZ headquarters staff resisted this decision with the support of their allies on the larger Board. They fired me as Executive Director. Unfortunately, after spending the cash on hand, primarily on salary for the headquarters staff, V4V ceased operations despite its documented benefits to returning veterans.
While I had assumed I would continue to play an important role in the V4V spinoff organization, I had always intended to use the original nonprofit, this Institute, to spread the practice of peer support into other social change movements. The climate crisis seemed the inevitable next issue. In 2011, based on the success of our V4V model, I had begun to organize the first, weekend workshop to train climate leaders in the tools of peer support. At just that time, Vets4Vets faced the headquarters-funding crisis described above. Given the tone of that break up, I have focused full time on climate change since mid-2011. I hope someday to restart peer support for returning veterans.
The “Equals” Strategy. As I reflected on dissolution of Vets4Vets, I thought long and hard about the role of permanently-paid staff in our new climate program or any other social change effort. As noted earlier, there has always been an organizing strategy based on “equals” as an alternative to this “elites” strategy. In European “Council” socialism (and Occupy “General Assemblies” or “GA’s”, many other occupations of public squares, communes, take overs of plants and, yes, New England Town Meetings) each individual votes on each decision. In the United States, the anti-nuclear power movement incorporated a set of tactics for equals imported from the European socialist experience, including the use of small (affinity) groups where each individual was empowered to think. All decisions in the small group were made by consensus where any individual could “block” action by the group. Large numbers of affinity groups, for example planning and executing a large, civil-disobedience protest, would be linked horizontally in “Spokescouncils” where any one representative of any group could block a decision. Moreover, these were “direct” representatives who had to confer with their affinity group before voting or “blocking” a decision. By comparison, the representatives in most governmental bodies are “indirect.” For two or six years, indirect representatives make independent decisions, moderating the positions of their constituents with their own judgment—and the influence of large contributors and the professional lobbyists employed by the wealthy. Most U.S. Occupy movement ultimately adopted such an affinity-group and spokescouncil structure as the original GA’s proved unworkable. During the 1970s and 80s, the Movement for a New Society (MNS) helped spread these tools and this equals organizing strategy widely from the anti-nuclear power movement to other social change movements (V. Coover, et al., 1977; Cornell, A,2011). I had the honor of using that model to help 13,000 nuclear disarmament protestors get arrested at the Nevada Test Site from 1985-88 as we sought to stop U.S. nuclear weapons testing.
MNS took this equals model one step further and eliminated the use of paid staff, hired permanently to work on a social change campaign. By contrast to that paid and inevitably “elites” approach, they advocated a “bread labor” model. MNS members did social change work as volunteers; they earned their “bread” other ways. In its heyday, MNS owned or rented fifteen three-decker residential buildings in a mixed-race neighborhood of Philadelphia. To minimize expenses, the volunteers lived collectively. Some worked part-time for “bread” in a variety of traditional, although often movement-related, jobs and volunteered for MNS. Others worked longer hours in traditional jobs so that their housemates could volunteer with MNS. MNS’ Macro-Analysis Seminars spread their “equals” tools widely. Eventually, MNS disbanded in the late 1980’s in part because they had succeeded in bringing their approach to various issues and its members wanted to focus more on those issues and less on the process.
Not coincidentally, the MNS model was developed in large part by the peer-led Quakers and co-counselors. It is possible there were also connections to the recovery movement. In any event, while each of these three, personal growth movements relies at least partially on a small, paid central staff, they function largely, and to varying extents, on massive amounts of volunteer labor. In addition, they made use to varying extent of the “equals” model of social change advocated by MNS and others. For example, the recovery program relies on small, autonomous, peer groups connected to each other in geographically-based, spokescouncil-like structures called “intergroups.” While the intergroup may vote when consensus fails, the representatives on the intergroup are expected to poll their group before voting. Nobody in this recovery program gets paid to organize or lead these groups. Indeed, no one is allowed to give more that $5,000 to the central organization to avoid giving any individual or organization too much influence. Co-counseling has also developed egalitarian approaches to participant-led discussions (called “topic group discussions) and small group functioning aimed not at consensus but encouraging the initiative of each member to take action. Quakers, of course, pioneered consensus-based, volunteer functioning.
The MNS experience resonated with me as I sought an alternative to the “elites” model for social change which was so demonstrably not succeeding to reverse the larger economic and environmental devastation of our species and others and which had proved unreliable in my own experience. I had incorporated the “topic group discussions” and “initiative groups” from co-counseling in each of our workshops for veterans. Those simple, peer-led discussions had generated large amounts of volunteer efforts by returning veterans. To those elements, I decided to incorporate the MNS model of “bread labor” as well as the affinity group and spokescouncil model I had experience directly for our three years at the Nevada Test Site. In addition, the racial segregation of the climate movement suggested that I incorporate what I had learned about eliminating racism from my work in co-counseling. As will be laid out below, the peer support model we abstracted from these various experiences is only one “equals” model for the climate/sustainability/environmental justice movement to consider. As we will describe shortly, the peer support model has shown great promise over the last three years. However, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (www.NCDD.org) has cataloged a variety of “equals” tools and strategies. What is clear is that we need to move away from the “elites” strategy as quickly as possible.
An Equals Case Study Using Peer Support to Reverse Global Warming. We launched our climate initiative with a what has now become our standard weekend, peer support workshop for climate leaders in Tucson, Arizona. The workshop taught peer support to thirteen key Arizona climate activists. It led to an ongoing Climate Activist Peer Support Group which has now met monthly for almost three years. Like the veterans’ workshops, it also included the “equals”tool, a Topic Group Discussion which has also continued to meet monthly now for three years as the “Tucson Climate Action Network.” “TUCAN” generated a new campaign including civil disobedience focused on the local coal-burning utility, long neglected by the Big Green groups. Early on, TUCAN also launched local chapters of Citizens Climate Lobby in Tucson and Phoenix. TUCAN has spearheaded four events for 350.org, including bringing fifty, many of them brand-new, climate activists to one of 350’s first, local weekend trainings. Those activities increased participation in climate-change activism there “by a factor of three” according to the key regional climate-change organizer who had “given up on Tucson.” TUCAN shaped public opinion with broad media coverage including several major stories in the previously “denialist” Tucson daily newspaper. The utility has recently announced its decision to stop using coal.
In December, 2012, I moved to Washington, DC, to help raise twin grand-daughters. In the last year and half, we have launched three local face-to-face Climate Activist Support Groups, two of them for climate leaders targeted by racism. They have met monthly for between six and twelve months already. A series of Topic Group Discussions has led to an initiative to reduce the racial segregation in the local climate movement. This spring, three, mostly white environmental organizations co-sponsored a candidates forum with the mostly African-heritage federation of neighborhood associations.
Nationally, for Citizens Climate Lobby, we have done workshops at two of their annual international conferences and run monthly, national, telephone peer support groups on a “call-in” basis for a year now. We helped train the Great March for Climate Action in this peer support model with a special emphasis on eliminating racism. A number of peer support groups have continued to meet during the March as has one specifically for white Marchers working to eliminate their racism. In the first three months of the March, we have organized four local briefings on local Environmental Justice issues in communities along their route.
While on a much smaller scale than our work with veterans, these two local, geographical pilot projects and our national program work are encouraging. We urge others concerned about global warming to consider this particular “equals” strategy or at least incorporate some of its elements,
Instead, we need to build an egalitarian, social change movement of people all informed, empowered, acting and connected to one another at the grassroots, not waiting for the next email from some national organization. Fortunately, we already know how to do that. At the same time so many of us sought to build these centralized, bureaucratic social-change organizations as “movement professionals,” others of us figured out how to build participative, egalitarian, emotionally-sensitive movements. The future of our species depends on following this latter path.
So what might we do to implement an “equals” strategy to stop global warming? Certainly, we don’t need to send yet another email to Congress or go to a large demonstration and listen to a few movement stars talk about how to beat the Tea Party and elect a Democrat (Stauber, J., 2013.) We have tried that approach and it is not working. Here is how we do it using the NIPS peer support strategy.
RELAX ABOUT OUR SPECIFIC SUBSTANTIVE/POLICY GOAL. Consistent with an organizational psychology perspective, how we proceed is as important than figuring out the ultimate policy which will solve the problem. Indeed, until we engage more people, especially more people of the Global Majority, it is likely that we have not yet identified the magic bullet. As simple fact, we do not know what will work. There are lots of good ideas out there already for stopping global warming. A stiff tax on carbon might do it relying on the existing system of markets as advocated by Citizens’ Climate Lobby (“CCL,”www.CitizensClimateLobby.org), revised, of course, to take into account the criticisms of people of color in the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement (www.ejnet.org) Maybe elections will make a difference through the League of Conservation Voters (www.LCV.org) and the Sierra Club (www.SierraClub.org.) Or it may take non-violent direct action to stop extreme fossil-fuel extraction such as fracking and divestiture from investments in fossil-fuel companies as advocated by 350.org (www.350.org) and others (www.RisingTideNorthAmerica.org). Or it might require a bigger shift away from our profit-and-growth maximizing economic system. Your local Transition Town (www.TransitionUS.org) can hook you up with the people in your community already launching such a new economy by saving energy, switching to renewables like solar, growing more food locally, saving water, living less suburbanly, etc. Many other groups are already organizing for a new society: www.ZComm.org, www.SystemChangeNotClimateChange.org, www.ClimateandCapitalism.com, etc.
There are specific organizations dealing with specific constituencies. We need small groups of people active in every school, religious congregation, workplace, neighborhood, social and political organizations. Many of these constituencies already have useful organizations as a place to start with wonderful resources and programs (for elementary schools, www.ClimateChangeIsElementary.org; high schools (www.acespace.org; religious congregations, www.InterfaithPowerandLight.org; workplaces (www.BlueGreenAlliance.org orwww.Labor4Sustainability.org). Then we need to connect the groups from different constituencies in each community by means of spokescouncils, then at state, national and regional level across the globe. Saving our species—and so many others–will require a local, coordinated approach.
One thing is clear. We need to define our movement broadly. Most climate theorists consider both climate “mitigation” and climate “adaptation.” The former refers to efforts like a carbon tax to stop the emission of carbon. However, we also need to deal with already locked-in consequences of global warming, as we are doing now with droughts, fires, storms and sea rise. This is climate “adaptation.” In most communities, those affected most by rising temperatures are poor people of color. The head of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Program refers to the need to build “resilience” in these poor communities to adapt to the consequences of global warming. To me that means that almost everything being done to strengthen these communities at present is part of the climate movement broadly defined. That means activists working to keep people in their homes or get better housing, to get better medical services, healthier food, more jobs, better education, more community control of police (cf. New Orleans), etc. I had the privilege of witnessing the Los Angeles Climate Coalition, a 350.org affiliate, gather to send off the Great March for Climate Action earlier this year. The crowd and the speakers were mostly from the Global Majority. The Coalition includes many of these multi-issue, community-based groups. Oakland appears to have a similarly diverse coalition. As will be discussed below, we need to reach out to these communities. Often a local environmental justice group can be a bridge.
In addition, we need to include people working for “sustainability.” Obviously, locally-produced food helps mitigate global warming as does reducing the use of private transportation. Likewise renewable energy, etc. How tightly the various issue groups usually clustered under the label of “transition town” collaborate with our Club, they need to be connected.
RECRUIT NEW MEMBERS, ONE AT A TIME, FACE-TO-FACE. The most basic element of an “equals” strategy is reaching out laterally to another human being as an equal, not as a member of some hierarchical organization. Virtually every serious, long-term, social-change activist knows that significant social change depends on one-on-one, face-to-face relationships (M. Gans, 2009.) As one seasoned organizer puts it: “Anything in organizing that doesn’t contribute to building a personal relationship with another human being, is wasted!” That means demonstrations, civil disobedience, mass emails to Congress. However, despite paying lip service to the one-on-one approach, big, elite organizations rarely do such one-on-one organizing or, if so, not for very long. It takes too much money if you pay professional staff to do one-on-ones (and probably gives too much power to the grassroots when you are done!) Our outreach task is highly efficient in the current crisis. We do not have to persuade anyone to help us. A strong majority of the population already agrees with us and about 25% are already “concerned” or “alarmed” (Leiserowitz, A. et al, 2012.) To build a more-than-big-enough movement to stop global warming, we just need to identify potential new activist volunteers among the already-convinced. All we have to do is systematically ask the people around us what they think about climate change–and then listen to them and not argue! As always, we should begin concentrically starting with the people closest to us and build our own “affinity group” (“Climate Committee” or whatever we choose to call it. Here we will simply call it your “Club.”) Once we find someone who is concerned, invite them to meet with us for forty-five minutes (a “One-On-One”.) This is serious business and requires a serious meeting dedicated to this purpose. As in all one-on-one, relational organizing, we should begin by exchanging brief (five minute!) life stories with your potential new Club Member, culminating in why we care about this issue (workshops.350.org/toolkit/story). In this peer-support model, we should each also take short, five-minute, uninterrupted turns listening to each other answer the question, “What gets in the way of your doing more on the climate?” (Please see our website for more detail.) As will be discussed below, these emotionally-supportive “Listening Turns” generate lots of involvement. Then we explore common interests and invite our new Member to a “Topic Group Discussion” to learn more about your Club and what else is going on in the community to stop global warming. We should start concentrically, with the people we already know well: our family, friends, co-workers, etc. Not our Uncle John who listens to Rush Limbaugh! To build a diverse Group, we will have to target some of our One-On-Ones outside our immediate circle as discussed below.
SUPPORT EACH OTHER EMOTIONALLY. The crisis we deal with–the imminent death of our species and most other species as well–can terrify, anger and discourage us as well as our potential new Group members (Coyle, K. J. and Van Suteren, L, 2012 ; Caldwell, G., 2011.) Our Advisory Committee Member Dr. Lise Van Susteren calls it “climate advocacy trauma.” It can cause burnout and make us ineffective in our activism. Based on the example of other peer-support communities (E.M. Kyrouz, et al., 2002), one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our new Club members is periodically agreeing to take turns listening to each other talk about what is hard about this crisis and our activism. That’s why we include a short “Listening Turn” in our initial One-On-Ones. We’ve been doing it for climate activists for three years now and it works. As our Club grows, we must set up small “Peer Support Groups”, larger Classes and Workshops to provide this emotional support on an ongoing basis. All the information is on our website. We just agree not to interrupt each other or give advice as we take turns, and encourage each other to express our feelings, even deep ones. When someone starts to cry, tremble or rage, we don’t try to stop them. People think more clearly and act more powerfully after expressing their feelings on a given topic. We use timers to keep from interrupting each other and we keep what is said confidential. It’s a simple but very powerful formula from the peer-support world. Support groups for specific constituencies, such as women, men, People of the Global Majority, LGBTQ, young adults, etc., are particularly helpful to provide even greater psychological safety, beyond just having climate activism in common. Here at the Institute, we have taught peer support to literally thousands of activists in various constituencies over eight years with peer-reviewed results (A. MacEachron and N. Gustavsen, 2012.) The next time some meeting or demonstration you are attending gets stuck, just suggest or, if necessary, shout out, “Let’s take a break and pair up to let off steam in a “Listening Turn.” Things will go better afterward! Of course, there are many approached to dealing with stress: meditation and/or prayer, yoga, exercise, diet, journaling, a near infinite variety. What is clear is the need for emotional support. Peer support is one time tested, and free, approach.
HOLD A “TOPIC GROUP DISCUSSION” TO SHARE INFORMATION AS EQUALS AND IDENTIFY COMMON INTERESTS. To build our new Club we need to get our new members together and ask them what they want to talk about to deal with this crisis (not just what the “Big Greens” have already decided!) In Co-Counseling, we call these “Topic Group Discussions.” They are similar to Open Space Design and other participant-driven discussion models. In a Topic Group Discussion on climate, it’s good to list a few of the policy suggestions from the Big Greens and others noted above on a flip chart as conversation starters, e.g. carbon tax, upcoming civil disobedience, etc. But the agenda should come from the participants. After the new Members suggest Topics, we vote among the suggested Topics to prioritize an agenda for the group to discuss further. If the group is larger than eight, we form small, “Topic Groups,” as needed for discussion. In addition to asking participants to set our own agendas, we treat every one in these ensuing group conversations as equals, as we do in all of our work. We want everyone’s input. Without a structure, the speaking habits of certain people (most often those most educated, professional, middle-aged, male, etc.) will dominate any discussion. In Topic Groups, we ask everyone to speak once before anyone speaks twice; then, we ask that nobody speak four times before everyone speaks twice. After the discussion, Topic Groups report back to the whole group. The next time some one suggests a ”General Assembly” with everyone allowed to speak to the large group, shout out, “How about Topic Groups with reports back instead, so we can all get to participate?” Otherwise, as we learned in Occupy, those large-group discussions will be dominated by those whose socialization or distresses lead them to think that everyone else can’t wait to hear their opinions—again and again, at length!
FORM “INITIATIVE” GROUPS AROUND POPULAR TOPICS. Small, ongoing groups are vital to social change. Indeed, almost half the people in the U.S. already belong to such small groups which meet regularly (R. Worthnow, 1994.) However, such groups are rarely encouraged or supported by large environmental, climate or other progressive groups, either awarely or unawarely to maintain their elite structure. Indeed, most such small groups currently are used to anchor fundamentalist mega-churches! After the Topic Group Discussion, re-form the small Topic Groups to meet as what we call “Initiative Groups” to decide on next steps. As these small groups move from information sharing to making decisions and taking action, they should continue to maximize equal involvement. Many of us have used consensus-based processes for this purpose (Lawrence Butler, C.T. and A. Rothstein, 1987.) However, the co-counseling suggests something more individually-empowering which we are calling here “initiative groups.” We do not ask Members what the whole group wants to do next (although such a common focus may emerge.) Instead, we give each Member two timed, uninterrupted turns and ask, first: “What follow-up actions will you (each individual) take on this Topic in the next period?” Rather than insisting on a time-consuming, group consensus, we just let individuals connect in small task groupings after we hear these individual responses or Members can choose to work individually until our next meeting. Next, we give each person in our group a timed, uninterrupted “Listening Turn” for emotional support by asking: “What might get in the way of doing what you just said you would do?” It is amazing how much more initiative people will take if we have a task we have chosen ourselves and have had a chance to process some of our feelings about doing that task. If some time has passed since the larger Topic Group Discussion, before we proceed to these two action-oriented rounds, we first review our information-sharing by asking each Member to speak to two questions: “What have you done lately on this Topic?” and “What other information do you have that a leader on this Topic know?” These specific-task focused Initiative Groups become the building blocks of our new Club. Obviously, you can call them “affinity groups,” “task forces” or whatever you choose.
CONNECT DIRECTLY WITH OTHER LOCAL GROUPS IN SPOKESCOUNCILS. Our Club is thus a collection of small, task-focused, Initiative Groups, supplemented by Listening Turns among pairs and Support Groups among our Members for emotional support. To build community and deal with issues requiring coordination among groups, at least occasionally, everyone gets together as a Club. Historically, in social change, the best way to coordinate the actions of a number of such small groups in our Clubs is called a “Spokescouncil.” Meeting. Each Initiative or Support Group sends a representative or “Spoke” to the Spokescouncil/Club (often sitting in a small circle surrounded by all the individuals in the smaller Groups) to share information and make decisions affecting all of our Groups in the Club. Here consensus is the best decision-making process. We are not seeking individual initiative from these Spokes. As noted above, in these “equals” Spokescouncils, our representatives always ask the other Members of their own home Groups how to vote (by using a runner, phone or internet.) These “Spokes” (people) are direct representatives of their groups, not the indirect variety found today in most governmental bodies and non-profit boards of directors. We rotate Spokes because we don’t want to create another elite inclined to adopt unnecessarily conservative positions. The internet can facilitate Spokescouncils sharing information and functioning at a distance from the individual groups–regionally, nationally globally. We will develop nested sets of these Spokescouncils as we coordinate together at larger and larger geographical areas. Spokescouncils connect groups working on a specific Topic or the whole global warming crisis. We will need some Initiative Groups in our Clubs whose Members join larger formal organizations like CCL, 350, Sierra Club and Transition Towns and work with them. We need the latest information from these hierarchical climate organizations and we want to help shape their strategies. Without strong, coordinated, grassroots input, these larger organizations will inevitably become too conservative and dis-empowering. To prevent that built-in bias, we need to communicate directly with our peers—often across these organizational boundaries (sometimes called organizational “silos!”) If we ultimately do have to make major changes in our society, as many of us believe will be necessary, these Spokescouncils/Clubs can make more and more of society’s decisions and evolve into a new participative form of government (M. Albert and R. Hahnel, 1991.)
TACKLE RACISM RIGHT AWAY. The current racially-segregated climate movement cannot save our species. As a practical matter, the U.S. is quickly becoming ethnically “majority-minority” (odd terms on a globe where 90% of the people are not white.) In addition, the powers-at-be always use actual and manufactured differences among us to divide and conquer social movements. In the U. S. A., they especially use race. At present, the big, national/international, environmental/climate groups are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, led by heterosexual men—and funded and therefore guided by wealthy donors. By contrast, the local Environmental Justice “EJ”, front-line” groups which have already defeated so many sources of carbon pollution and global warming, especially incinerators and power plants, in their neighborhoods are overwhelmingly composed of people targeted by People of the Global Majority, i.e. people of color—and are largely un-funded. To build political power and avoid manipulation based on race, we need to bridge that divide. This does not simply mean inviting a few speakers of color to our rallies; it means that all our Club Members need to build strong, ongoing personal relationships with people of different races. We need to build the social glue that will resist those attempts to divide us. The attempts have already started. In the mass media, the problem is China and India, nations of color. “They” have to do something—even though the carbon in the atmosphere came mostly from the white nations of Europe and the U.S. The action steps to resist such divisions are obvious. First, we need to make friends of different colors and, for white climate activists, we need to support climate and other social-change projects in communities of color with our volunteer time and money. In addition to informing ourselves by reading about the history and current struggles of other races, to succeed and persist in such actions, white activists will need to spend time in “Listening Turns” and “Support Groups” examining the emotional baggage anchoring our racist attitudes and behaviors. For white activists, such peer support sessions begin by taking pride in our own heritage. Otherwise, we will just get defensive, even though growing up in a racist society makes our racism unavoidable. Then, we need to look back to the first time we noticed there were people with different skin colors—and the lies we were told about them. This work needs to be done separately to give us the freedom to explore these lies and our feelings. People of the Global Majority need our own peer support to look at our internalized oppression (since we were told and, all too often, believe at least some of the same lies.) We then climate activists of all races must expand this ”liberation” work to deal with sexism, classism, adultism, homophobia and the other “isms” that plague all our social-change efforts. The only way to build strong and diverse enough local Clubs is to go through these oppression issues, not try to avoid them. Indeed, continued personal liberation work is vital for all of us, whether in peer support such as co-counseling(www.rc.org), Nonviolent Communication (www.cnvc.org), meditation, 12-Step work on our addictions (e.g. www.OA.org) or other modalities.
DON’T HIRE PAID STAFF! Despite the best intentions, paid staff inevitably focus on our careers, salary, budgets and funding—which mostly comes from the wealthy. Hierarchy emerges from paid staff. We become our own growth-obsessed system! To avoid these distortions, our Climate Clubs need to develop the leadership potential of every new Member—as a volunteer! Leadership development should begin at the first meeting of our groups. We can ask a new Member to take responsibility for setting up chairs or taking notes. The newest among us can always offer Listening Turns as emotional support. Our Initiative Groups will quickly engage new Members in significant tasks. Instead of creating a new generation of permanently-paid, “environmental professionals,” we need to encourage a new generation of activists who establish sustainable lives with jobs meeting real human needs. These -jobs may not necessarily deal with climate, but must allow sufficient time off for volunteer activism. As noted above, this system is inspired by the recovery movements such as Alcoholic Anonymous which eschew paid staff, as does co-counseling, the Quakers who have no professional ministers and most relevantly, the “bread labor” model of the Movement for a New Society. In a collapsing society, balancing income with activism probably means living more collectively and not everybody having biological offspring. Indeed, one priority for the survival of our species is certainly reducing population, especially in the middle class which consumes disproportionately so many resources. When potential young activists assume crushing student loans and later mortgages to purchase single-family houses, we certainly don’t increase free time for activism! My own activism was certainly enhanced by my decision in 1982 to settle for relatively low salaries and Social Security as my pension plan. If an essential project requires more time or skills than volunteers can initially contribute, then we can hire staff, preferably on a temporary basis. Whether for the short or long term, we can divide the paid work fairly among a group rather than hiring a single individual. To avoid creating a conservative elite, we must share not just salaries equally, but the opportunity to do the “thinking” and empowering tasks like strategizing and building relationships with donors, the media and elected officials. We can rotate positions and prioritize paying people of color (Albert and Hahnel, op. cit.) To redress the historic funding inequities in the environmental movement, this Institute hires People of the Global Majority working through existing EJ local organizations.
NEXT STEPS. To encourage this “equals” strategy to stop global warming, start your own personal Club/affinity group around you. To get help, share successes and take part in Spokescouncils as they form and connect over larger areas, please contact us. We are eager to connect with others who share this perspective. All the techniques for the peer support “equals” model described here are detailed on our website, www.NIPSPeerSupport.org. In addition, depending on funding, we now feel confident enough in this model to make “mini-grants” to local EJ groups to deepen local climate movements by organizing Peer Support Groups, weekend workshops. Where funds are available, we will pay staff stipends for “special workers” (as necessary paid workers are called in the volunteer-based, recovery communities) to build this climate community of equals in each local community. As our compromise with the “elites” pressure of paid staff, we only offer stipends for one year to avoid the unintended consequences of permanently-paid staff. As part of these year-long projects, staff will be encouraged to develop collective living arrangements (which many young activists naturally do) and “bread labor” arrangements which will be required for a lifetime of volunteering in this ultimate movement. Without that “consciousness raising” and specific education, all too often,we can see the seeds of hierarchy and inevitable ineffectiveness growing as activists in powerful, local efforts seeks ways to get paid” or “make a career” (the phrase varies by class background) by doing this vital, species-saving work. Unfortunately, we now know that paid staff direct their attention to building (and hoarding) relationships up the status ladder with funders, the corporate media and elected officials and away from building lateral relationships or supporting one’s peers emotionally. We now know the unintended, negative effects of this “elites” model. It will not save our species. To coin Marx, climate/sustainability/environmental justice advocates of the world unite, we have nothing to lose but the “elites” model which is causing the death of our species.
Table 1: Two Organizing Strategies
Key contribution Small group Individual
Emphasis Emotion Intellectual
Direction of Influence and Bottom-Up Top-down
Focus Liberation, Policy,
Outreach One-on-One, One-to-Many,
Face-to-face Internet (formerly direct mail and phone banks)
Persuasion Listening Informing
Payment Volunteer Professional
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