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Activism 101: From Personal to Large-Scale Action

What you can do to address environmental issues in a meaningful way.

This article is part of A\J’s web series Night School. In celebration of back-to-school time and our Night issue, the A\J web team brought you a series of quick lessons, posted between September 16 to October 11, 2013, covering everything from activism tactics and canning tips to how factory farms breed disease.

This article is part of A\J’s web series Night School. In celebration of back-to-school time and our Night issue, the A\J web team brought you a series of quick lessons, posted between September 16 to October 11, 2013, covering everything from activism tactics and canning tips to how factory farms breed disease.

Activism 101 tackles small- to large-scale actions that we can take to work on environmental problems in our communities and beyond. Weeks one and two were written by A\J web editor Emily Slofstra and weeks three and four are by our publicity and special projects manager Laura McDonald.

Week 1: Personal Responsibility
Week 2: Corporate and Government Responsibility
Week 3: Writing an Op-ed
Week 4: What is Direct Action?

Week 1: Personal Responsibility

A\J posted a blog post called Under Cover of Night that looked at some intense actions that Greenpeace activists have been undertaking around the world in the last few months, from scaling buildings to occupying oil rigs. For Activism 101, we’re eventually going to talk about that type of direct action, but in the mean time we’d like to work our way up, starting from the actions you can take without even leaving your home. 

There’s a lot of debate in the environmental sphere about whether or not behavioural change is important. I’m firmly in the “Yes, it is!” camp, though I definitely acknowledge that changing your light bulbs will not be enough to truly save our planet, and that larger-scale changes need to happen as well. But here are three reasons why I think that Canadians (and individuals from other privileged nations) need to reduce their environmental footprints.

1. While our national carbon footprint will continue to be high as long as the tar sands are operating, we can at least stop some trees from being chopped down, some oil from being extracted and burned and some landfills from being filled. We can at least reduce some negative impacts on the planet, or even increase the capacity for carbon capture by planting trees.

2. Corporations and governments follow the lead of citizens. Or they should, anyway. If more citizens show that they are committed to making personal changes, the government might be forced to take action on the environment. And we vote with our dollars too, so if we all switched some of our buying to support businesses with environmental and socially responsible values, other companies might follow suit. 

3. We have so much privilege that we need to do something to mitigate the problems we are causing. I eat organic foods not just for my own health and for the health of the fields, but also for the health of the people who have to spray crops or work in fields full of pesticides. I reduce waste and avoid plastic and oil because I’m not the one who has to deal with the stench of landfills or the direct impacts of refineries. I spend a lot of money on food because I want to ensure that my farmers are getting well-paid and not in danger of going bankrupt every year. It has taken me some finagling and finessing over time, but each year I’m able to live more responsibly than the one before it. I’m not going to force my daughter’s children to clean up my mess. 

I’m sure most A\J readers are taking some actions in their personal lives to reduce their ecological footprint, but I’m of the opinion that we can always do more! Here are some resources to get you started.

Watch these films:

Read these articles:

Check out these categories:


Week 2: Corporate and Government Responsibility

This week’s Activism 101 class looks at some of the problems with the personal responsibility approach we explored last week (scroll down for that one), namely that most people aren’t taking environmental action in their own lives, so why should a few people have to suffer a lack of luxury that will hardly even make a dent in our unsustainable society?

The argument for emphasizing corporate and government responsibility holds that only wide-scale, top-down change can truly make a big enough difference to turn things around, rather than convincing thousands or millions of people to change their behaviours by choice.

Even when people do try to make better individual choices, they can be mislead along the way. Today we posted a piece called What You Need to Know About Greenwashing, which reviews the seven main types of greenwashing that you might see in stores and in the media, then goes on to argue that “green capitalism is not activism,” explaining some of the failings of an individualist approach:

We encounter instances of greenwashing on a daily basis as concern for the environment has become a mainstream issue. This growing concern by citizens has led corporations to advance the ideology of green capitalism, in which consumers are urged to help the environment through the purchase of ostensibly eco-friendly products.

Consumer activism is problematic on two levels.  Firstly, as exemplified above, many of these commodities are not actually living up to their green claims.

Secondly, placing responsibility on individuals to change their habits through green consumerism shifts the focus away from corporations as the cause of many of the world’s environmental problems, and also away from the government as regulators. Moreover, placing agency in the hands of individuals rather than corporations serves to further advance the corporate agenda by keeping us thinking about ourselves as individuals and consumers rather than as citizens or community members.

Read the rest of the post to learn how to avoid falling victim to greenwashing.

What else can you do? Perhaps focus your activism on convincing companies that make every-day products or electronics to green themselves, rather than convincing your friends to stop buying those products. Or keep reading if you think that individuals should take as much responsibility for environmental protection as the businesses and organizations that might make it difficult for us to do so.


Week 3: Writing an Op-ed

So, you’ve decided that lifestyle changes aren’t enough and you want to lobby for more systemic change. What next? You’ve got loads of options, from joining an environmental NGO to starting your own grassroots campaign, and what you choose to do really depends on the issue(s) you’re passionate about, the opportunities available to you and your personal preferences. But once you’ve gotten to work on a particular issue, one of the most important steps is getting the word out to the general public! And one great way to do that is with an op-ed in your local (or a regional or national) paper.

What is an op-ed and why would you want to write one?

An op-ed is an opinion piece published in a newspaper that isn’t written by the paper’s editorial board. They’re commonly written by political pundits and “experts” on a given topic – including advocacy organizations and campaigners. Op-ed is short for “opposite the editorial,” a reference to their traditional placement in the newspaper.

Opinion sections in newspapers are widely read and fairly influential, making op-eds a great opportunity for exposure when you’ve got something you want people to know about. You can get your issue in front of a broad audience that is at least minimally informed and engaged, but doesn’t always follow environmental issues specifically. In other words: you’re no longer preaching to the choir.

More environmentalists* writing op-eds could go a long way to addressing the current dire need for public understanding and discussion of environmental issues.

So, let’s get to it, then. Here are our tips for writing an effective op-ed:

Know your stuff. Op-eds need to be well-informed and well-written, so do your research and take your time. Yes, it’s an opinion piece, but you need to back it up with solid information. Being an authority on a subject isn’t required, but it helps, so consider enlisting an expert on a subject to write (or sign) an op-ed on behalf of your campaign or organization.

Be relevant. Submissions that are particularly timely are more likely to be accepted. Sometimes this means seizing the opportunity to respond to a hot news story. It can also mean anticipating a big story, or submitting an article in advance of an event, holiday or campaign. If you have a prominent speaker coming to town to talk about an issue, submit an op-ed to your local paper (or ask them to do so!) to generate interest.

Keep it simple. Make one point and make it right away. Use plain language and don’t try to get into too many specifics or complex connections between issues. You can always make a suggestion as to where people can get more information.

Fire it up! You’re writing because you’re passionate about something! Let that show – and stir passion in others by appealing to the values and concerns of the paper’s typical readers. Just don’t go overboard – you still want to come across as a voice of reason and have a grounded, logical argument.

Get more tips from these great resources:

*Especially environmentalists who aren’t white men. No, really: the overwhelming majority of opinion articles in news media are written by men, most of them white. There are entire organizations dedicated to changing this.


Week 4: Taking direct action

If you’ve heard the term before, chances are you’re currently picturing something quite confrontational, like a blockade or smashed windows. While you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, the strong association of direct action “with a certain degree of militancy,” as David Graeber puts it in his book Direct Action: An Ethnography, is both too narrow and too broad, obscuring the full range – and real purpose – of the tactic.

It’s too narrow in that not all direct action is confrontational, and too broad in the sense that not all confrontational activism is direct action.

In the direct action entry of Beautiful Trouble, Joshua Kahn Russell explains that “people often confuse direct action with getting arrested,” but, while getting arrested is sometimes useful or even “strategically necessary…it isn’t the point of direct action.”

“Similarly,” he says, “people also conflate the term with civil disobedience,” which is “a specific form of direct action that involves intentionally violating a law because that law is unjust” – in other words, breaking the law is the whole point. But that’s not always true of direct action.

So what is direct action, then?

Direct action means that we take collective action to change our circumstances, without handing our power to a middle person. – Joshua Kahn Russell

Direct action is about directly intervening in a problem, rather than appealing to the powers-that-be through so-called “proper channels” to change things for us. It is often used by people with few resources or access to the proper channels, and by those who view those channels and middle persons as holding illegitimate power – or using it illegally or unethically – in the first place. It’s also often used when all other methods have been exhausted.

For example, blocking the construction of a pipeline or logging that threatens to harm the environment or a community, rather than asking governments or corporations to stop it, would be taking direct action to protect that community or environment. People might take this route because they’ve already tried petitions, lobbying and testifying at government hearings and the project was approved anyway. They might also do it because they don’t recognize the right of the corporations or governments responsible to inflict such harm.

Another example would be Food Not Bombs, a collection of groups that take surplus food from grocery stores and feed it to people who would otherwise go hungry. Tent cities, which are essentially pop-up homeless shelters, and squatting are also direct action – both involve securing shelter without relying on or reinforcing the power of municipalities or landlords.

Direct action means insisting on acting as if one is already free… It is a form of action in which means and ends become, effectively, indistinguishable. – David Graeber

Graeber emphasizes that direct action is not just about opting out of existing, unequal systems of power, but creating new, revolutionary ones: “the direct actionist does not just refuse to pay taxes to support a militarized school system [i.e. civil disobedience], she combines with others to try to create a new school system that operates on different principles.”

Direct action can range from somewhat symbolic, one-time events, to a long-term program, service or way of living – it all comes down to the principle of shifting the power in a situation.

If you want to learn more, I highly recommend reading Joshua Kahn Russell’s entry in Beautiful Trouble – it’s very brief – and, really, the rest of Beautiful Trouble, which is a fantastic activist toolbox resource!

Emily is former A\J web editor and a graduate of Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Emily is an urban homesteader who tries to live as plastic-free, local and organic as possible, and can be intense about it. 

Laura is a past A\J managing editor. She has an MA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, is an organizing aficionado, lackadaisical gardener, and former musical theatre producer. @inhabitings