6 hands raised in the air making fists and peace signs Photo © aleutie \ Fotolia.com

SINCE ROMAN PLEBEIANS rose up against their masters in the fifth century BCE, social movements have been the most important force for advancing progressive change. They work because ordinary people – like you and me – are the ultimate source of power in any society: People in positions of economic, political or social power rule only with the consent – explicit or implicit – of ordinary citizens. When we exercise our collective muscle, change happens.

That long history, however, is often ignored. As the 17th-century philosopher Georg Hegel said, “What experience and history teaches us is this – that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.” Perhaps today’s environmental activists can outwit and outmanoeuvre nations, governments and opposing interests by learning from their predecessors. To start, here are 10 lessons worth heeding.

1. Imagine a Better World

Inspirational visions have always helped humankind cope with life’s hardships and disappointments. Embodying collective ideals such as peace, justice and equality, they enable people to leave their struggles behind and imagine a better world, releasing people from their habitual ways of thinking. Indeed, without hopeful images of the future, our species would probably not survive. As the Bible succinctly puts it, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Martin Luther King Jr. expressed one of the simplest and most compelling visions of a better world in his well-known 1963 “I have a dream” speech. Delivered symbolically on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, his speech is justifiably celebrated for articulating a bold and uplifting vision for the civil rights movement.

Environmental movements have long been accused of not presenting a positive and inspiring vision for the future. This was one of the central arguments made by Shellenberger and Nordhaus in their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism.” After interviewing many prominent environmentalists in the US, they said “not one of America’s environmental leaders is articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes.” This criticism is just as true outside the US, and it hasn’t escaped the notice of Canada’s David Suzuki. After sounding the ecological alarm for 35 years, the 75-year-old environmental crusader has switched gears. He now calls for a focus on the future we want, behind which a positive movement can form.

2. Make it Personal

While previous social movements presented idealistic visions of the future, they also made their issues personal and real. There are few things that are more powerful than having people tell their stories. In doing so, others discover they are not alone, creating strong bonds that can inspire them to work together for social change.

In the 20th century, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire promoted this strategy. Horton, who founded the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in the 1930s to train labour organizers and, later, civil rights activists, encouraged students to talk about the injustice and discrimination they experienced in their everyday lives. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire encouraged the impov-erished and powerless residents of Brazil’s favelas to discusstheir brushes with oppression, helping break through what he called “the culture of silence.” Freire saw this strategy as a type of popular education that could empower marginalized communities anywhere.

In the same vein, environmental-health activists encourage people to talk about their direct experiences of environmental illness and pollution. By deliberately working with people suffering from environmental diseases and disabilities, their advocates, and caregivers, they personalize abstract issues. This creates deeply moving arguments for stronger legislation and policy that complement cold scientific facts. However, very little has been done so far to personalize the “mother” of all environmental issues: climate change.

3. Mind the Gap

Many train and subway stations warn the public to “mind the gap” between the train doors and the platform. Similarly, successful social movements draw attention to the gap between idealism and reality. In the 1970s, South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement highlighted the chasm between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ statement that “all human beings are created free and equal in dignity and rights” and the racism experienced by the majority black population. The US environmental movement drew attention to the disparity between the ideal of “America the Beautiful” and the reality of environmental contamination and pollution.

This strategy introduces a cognitive dissonance that makes people uncomfortable. We like to think that society’s systems, institutions and policies are consistent with our shared values, so it is difficult to live with the knowledge that they aren’t. New systems that are more in keeping with our shared aspirations evolve when the discomfort becomes too great. This is the very essence of progressive social change. Unfortunately, without a vision for the future and the personalization of climate change, environmentalists cannot use this strategy to its full advantage.

4. Get the Beat

The leaders of effective movements have always understood the social, economic and political systems they wanted to change. In other words, they get the beat. Systems-thinker Donella Meadows said, “Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history.”

Cesar Chavez, the labour leader and co-founder of the United Farmworkers, studied the American culture he wanted to change. Lech Walesa, the leader of the Soviet Bloc’s first independent trade union Solidarity, used his familiarity with Polish politics and communism to help topple his country’s government in 1989. Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi’s studies in London gave him the knowledge of British society and its governance system that became invaluable in the campaign for India’s independence.

Until recently, environmental movements and their leadersunderstood the scientific and technological notes in the tune, but failed to grasp the underlying rhythm of economic and social systems. They concentrated on presenting symptoms rather than underlying causes. Thankfully, this is now beginning to change as they realize the need to challenge Western culture’s values and its addiction to economic growth.

5. Practice Non-violence

Non-violence exposes the harsh and oppressive tactics often used by power-holders. Perhaps the best example of non-violence is Gandhi’s “satyagraha.” This Hindu word means “clinging to the truth.” Gandhi believed that people should always behave in accordance with their deepest convictions: Don’t just say you don’t believe in war - refuse to pay taxes that support conflict; Don’t just say that cutting down trees is wrong – sit in them to prevent their toppling.

Get the Beat: Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi’s studies in London provided him with the knowledge of British society and its governance system that shaped his campaign for India’s independence.

A second principle of Gandhi’s satyagraha was distinguishing between the power-holders and their actions. He believed that every human being, including those in positions of authority, is entitled to respect. Instead, he challenged their policies and programs. Always courteous to the British authorities who ruled India, Gandhi’s moral arguments and his non-violent civil disobedience exposed the repressive nature of the colonial system. This combination made it very difficult for the British to respond, except by capitulating.

Now, some 60 years after Gandhi’s death, several environmental groups including Earth First!, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front have started to challenge ideas about non-violent civil disobedience. Although these groups are largely opposed to violence against people, their direct action tactics are intended to cause property damage. As a result, they have been labelled “eco-terrorists.”

RELATED: Rethinking Resistance: Environmental leaders on civil disobedience

6. Confront Economic Power

Economics is Western culture’s principal ideology, so it is crucial to confront it head on. Boycotts and other types of consumer activism not only attack corporations and governments where it hurts the most, but also raise public awareness about the links between money, power and injustice.

In 1899, the social reformer Florence Kelley launched the first consumer boycott in North America. As general secretary of the National Consumers’ League, she persuaded shoppers to boycott clothing businesses that did not buy women’s and children’s cotton underwear from manufacturers with fair labour practices. Many other boycotts have followed, including environmentally focused ones such as the 1980s boycott of Nestlé for promoting formula over breast milk in developing countries and the European Stop Esso campaign in the early 2000s.

In recent years, environmentalists have developed other, more sophisticated forms of consumer activism. One of the cleverest is Greenpeace’s 2006/07 Green My Apple campaign, which persuaded Apple, one of the world’s largest electronics companies, to phase out its worst toxic chemicals and improve its recycling practices. Green My Apple took advantage of the company’s famously loyal customer base, encouraging Apple users to make their own campaign materials based on Greenpeace’s designs. The strategy worked. In May 2007, only eight months after the campaign was launched, Apple announced it would phase out brominated fire retardants and polyvinyl chloride, and create a system for US users to return their products for recycling.

7. Frame Issues in Terms of Human Rights

In the 18th century, the abolitionist movement asserted that slavery was a violation of the right to freedom. In the 19th cen- tury, the suffrage movement advocated that women should have the same right to vote as men. In the 20th century, the civil rights movement argued that everyone should have equal rights under the law.

So far, the environmental-justice movement is the only one to pick up the mantle, arguing that everyone has an equal right to a healthy environment. According to former White House advisor and retired Yale Law School dean Gus Speth, “Many established environmental issues should be seen as human rights issues – the right to water and sanitation, the right to sustainable development, the right to cultural survival, freedom from climatic disruption and ruin, freedom to live in a non-toxic environment, and the rights of future generations.” Long-time Canadian activist Maude Barlow did this when she founded the Blue Planet Project, portraying water as a fundamental human right. The project has now gone global and is working with organizations and activists in both hemispheres to create a human rights framework protecting water for generations to come.

8. Rely on Established Networks

Previous social movements were strategic in attracting supporters, relying largely on established networks and organizations. Since the days of slavery, African American churches in the US served not only as places of worship, but also as community hubs providing information and support. It was a natural choice to make them focal points for the civil rights and environmental-justice movements.

This approach is effective for two reasons: First, the most important factor in the decision to join a social movement is knowing people who already support it. Even with today’s electronic communication tools, most social movements still depend on personal relationships to attract new members. Second, by using existing networks and organizations, social movements do not have to invest precious time and energy in creating new ones. Environmental movements would do well to consider how they can use established networks and organizations more effectively.

9. Embrace Diversity

Diversity makes social movements difficult to marginalize and defeat. One reason the movements of the 1960s were so powerful is because they had support from different strata of society, unlike earlier movements that relied on the working class. More recently, the strength of the anti-globalization movement can be attributed to its broad-based support.

Sadly, the mainstream environmental movement has historically been dominated by white, middle-class professionals. In 1990, two environmental-justice organizations arranged for letters to be sent to the largest environmental groups in the US arguing that they had become isolated from poor and minority communities despite strong evidence that these were the chief victims of pollution. The letters also asserted that the groups had failed to hire and promote minorities at the staff and board levels. Acknowledging the validity of these claims, Fred Krupp, CEO of the Environmental Defense Fund, commented, “The truth is that environmental groups have done a miserable job of reaching out to minorities.” Yet while mainstream groups now have a heightened awareness of the importance of diversity, they are still predominantly white, middle-class and professional.

Collaborating across social strata and constituencies builds power and resilience. Moreover, everyone’s ideas and skills are needed to resolve our massive social and environmental problems. We need poets and plumbers, farmers and fashion designers, educators and executives. Like a synergistic chemical reaction, collaboration between different types of people generates robust and innovative ideas for social change.

10. Harness People Power

Successful social movements have always had strong support from ordinary people willing to protest on the streets. The 1986 revolution in the Philippines overturned the corrupt regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. Popular uprisings in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The revolts in the Middle East and Northern Africa earlier this year toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. None of that would have happened without people power.

Even though electronic communication means that what once took months to organize now takes only days, environmental movements still struggle to mobilize people. Environmental Defense Canada bucked that trend with its “Ban Toxics, Baby” rally in Ontario in 2007, which saw mothers bring their children to protest the use of bisphenol A in food containers. Three years later, BPA was listed as a “toxic substance” by Environment Canada. Still, it remains difficult to get real feet onto real streets in North America. Many people are reluctant to express their concern in public, but history shows that people power and its ability to link the private, public and political is necessary to advance progressive social change.

Previous social movements have much to teach environmentalists today. Let their successes and struggles inspire us to learn from the past and, in the words of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley,

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquished number!
Shake your chains to Earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many; they are few.

Photo courtesy of Consulate General of India, Sydney and the University of Newcastle, Australia. The University Gallery recently hosted an exhibit of rare images of Gandhi.

Kate Davies is a contributing editor with Alternatives Journal and teaches at the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University in Seattle. 

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate today to support our work.

A\J moderates comments to maintain a respectful and thoughtful discussion.
Comments may be considered for publication in the magazine.
  • From Environmental (Soul) Print: "Islamic Cosmology = we are not the centre of the Universe” Read more... https://t.co/Be4bfNVifu 41 weeks 1 day ago
  • Call for submissions deadline is January 13th to the May 2017 International In-Situ Thermal Treatment symposium. https://t.co/4tb6iRJ2rZ 41 weeks 2 days ago
  • Interview with Michael Engelhard, author of 'Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon' https://t.co/1ypJfReqIf 41 weeks 2 days ago