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Happy Activism

Six ways to make our movement strong and feed our spirit.

How do we make environmental organizations attractive to large numbers of people? And how do we keep these folks engaged for the years, even decades that it will take to create a sustainable society?

How do we make environmental organizations attractive to large numbers of people? And how do we keep these folks engaged for the years, even decades that it will take to create a sustainable society?

There are many potential movement enthusiasts – youth, retired people and engaged citizens among others – so it’s wrong to think there will only be one magnet. People become involved in movements for a host of reasons. It helps them protect the world their children will inherit. Some movements throw good parties. Inaction often makes people feel guilty. Joining can be a cure for loneliness. The list goes on. 

My interest here is not to enumerate people’s reasons for activism but rather, based on these reasons, to articulate principles that movement organizers should follow to bring people to the cause. These principles are general and they won’t speak to everyone. They should help make environmental campaigns appealing to wider audiences.


1. The issue itself isn’t enough to keep folks engaged. 

People join the environmental movement partly because they want to protect the natural world, but that concern is usually just one factor among several in their decision to be active. Young parents, for example, become involved partly out of concern for their kids’ future and partly because they enjoy spending time with other activist parents. I was a member of the 1980s peace movement at the University of Toronto because I was concerned about nuclear war and also because I wanted a community. I worked on a weekly peace-issues 

program at the campus radio station which helped me make friends and gave me a place to hang my hat. I stayed involved for a number of years because I enjoyed the comradery of my fellow activists, one of whom was like an older brother to me.  


2. Movements need to embrace popular culture, the arts and food. 

The civil rights movement, Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the anti-Vietnam war protesters – all had a musical signature by which we knew them. Music wasn’t a frill here; songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” kept people marching. In the The CND Story, Ian Campbell argues that in the late 1950s, jazz and the British disarmament movement grew up together. He writes: “The jazz revival and the rise of CND were more than coincidental; they were almost two sides of the same coin. Similar social attitudes and positive humanist values informed them both.”

New York’s massive “People’s Climate March” in September of 2014 was inspiring, partly, because it included rap musicians, marching bands and giant puppets. In general it is the artists – not speech-makers – who win us over. There are exceptions of course. Martin Luther King Jr. captured audiences with brilliant oratory; Stephen Lewis and David Suzuki play a similar role today. But often we’re able to engage the “uninitiated” – people who don’t much concern themselves with the environment – through the popular song. They come for the music and then learn a bit of the politics. Think of Gord Downey performing at a rally against Line 9; Sarah Harmer singing to protect the Niagara Escarpment; Neil Young criticizing the tar sands. We need to connect with folks who care little about climate change but love the likes of Leonard Cohen. 

Our movement needs more celebration and food. It needs to feed people spiritually and physically. At the end of our anti-war rallies in the 1980s, the Hare Krishna group provided hot vegetarian meals for weary walkers. A few years ago the David Suzuki Foundation organized the “Soupstock” festival in Toronto, which brought out tens of thousands of people in protest against a mega-quarry near the Niagara Escarpment. One may or may not have environmental concerns – but nearly everyone likes good cooking. 

Think how often eating provides a setting for social life: we have a beer and chicken wings with colleagues after work; we share a Thanksgiving meal with family; we break the Yom Kippur fast with fellow congregants. Movements need to understand this and weave more food and drink into their activities. This has long been understood by religious groups. Hence the annual round of strawberry socials, fish-fries, summer bar-b-ques. Churches aren’t afraid to use food as an organizing tool; environmentalists shouldn’t be afraid either.

We’re hungry for meaning, and
movements that offer it make a compelling case for our time and commitment.


3. Movements need to be venues for friendship and community.

Modernity finds many of us hungry for community. Life feels thin if we’re highly atomized, off on our own for significant periods. Synagogues speak to this predicament. Hiking clubs do. The Rotary Club does. So should environmentalists. 

Our events – be they street festivals, movie nights, demonstrations – need to be occasions for friends to gather. I went to the People’s Climate March in large measure because a dear pal suggested we go and I wanted to hang out with him. Though I care a great deal about the issue, I had little interest in navigating the demonstration (and the long bus ride and New York City itself) without a friend’s companionship.

I recently invited one of my sisters to a big climate march in Toronto. The first thing she remarked was that her activist buddies hadn’t said much about it and they didn’t seem likely to attend. Little surprise that she ended up not going herself – rallies just aren’t much fun if we go alone. Political life needs to be a venue for socializing. One constituency well-represented at the Toronto march was religious organizations; for example, the Unitarians’ social action committee attended as a group. 

Movements should also provide space for making new friends. The David Suzuki Foundation understands this. It’s helping to create homes for bees and monarch butterflies through its Homegrown National Park project. The project works to naturalize urban areas – getting people to plant things like milkweed – but it’s also an exercise in community-building. In my downtown Toronto neighborhood the project hosts a pollinator festival – where I can enjoy good food, purchase native plants, and meet similar-minded people, some of whom live right near me. I can also collaborate with folks in “planting” flower-filled canoes throughout downtown Toronto – helping to make the city more livable for beneficial insects. This initiative nurtures not only pollinators but community. It builds habitat in which bees – and human friendship – can flourish. 


4. Movements should help reduce our anxiety.

Scientists tell us that, even in Canada, the effects of climate change might be disastrous. We don’t need much convincing; we’re already seeing unusually strong flooding, drought and forest fires. Who can forget the blazes in BC and Saskatchewan in summer 2015? Anxiety and apprehensiveness are widespread 

We worry not just about recent events but the years ahead.

The immediate questions become, What will help us weather this angst? What will let us carry on with a degree of optimism? Family and religion will provide support for some people, but a friend-based environmental movement can also be a source of strength. 

Our companions help us develop the courage to go on, to walk into the future less afraid. They can take us away from our worrying-selves, our inward-brooding-selves, and turn us outward – toward the enlivening arena of debate and political engagement. Many of us feel less dispirited about the world when we’re actively trying to remake it. 

But we can’t do this work just with strangers and acquaintances – though they may also be with us. To continue our activism year after year we need to be working alongside our pals. We need their reassuring presence. We need the comfort of our shared history and humour. We need the joy and illumination their discussion brings. 


5. Movements need to show they can bring tangible benefits.

If organizers want to win our participation over the long term, movements need to show they can deliver the goods – bring positive change that we experience viscerally. Movements that don’t claim victories eventually become ex-movements. If they’re working to phase-out coal-fired power, for example, they need to close some plants and show folks that air quality actually improves. Ontario closed its last coal facility in 2014; the number of smog days that year was zero, down from 53 in 2005. This is the sort of accomplishment that inspires people’s engagement and donations.

The change that movements bring doesn’t have to be momentous; it can also be lovely, quiet and personal. Working with Physicians for the Environment, I helped to win lawn pesticide bans in communities across Canada. Following the bans’ implementation, folks told me they noticed more song-birds and butterflies in their community. The birds were once again landing in people’s yards and spending time there – clearly a joy for local homeowners. One family who had a severely chemical-sensitive child told me that thanks to the ban, they no longer had to leave the city each year during the spraying season. They were hugely grateful for my organization’s work and became major financial contributors. 


6. Movements need to give our lives meaning 

Actions that are beneficial to the world – and help define who we are – bring meaning to our lives. Activities that protect the environment – and help us see ourselves as protectors – qualify as meaningful. A movement that offers opportunities to undertake them will be attractive to many people. 

When I was a child in New York in the late 1960s, my mother was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. She spent weekends giving out leaflets in our neighborhood; organized peace festivals in Fort Tryon park; went to major demonstrations along 5th Avenue and attended some in Washington. At the latter she, along with thousands of others, was tear-gassed. “When the cops gas you,” she said, “all you can do is run.” She was outraged at America’s bombing of civilians – and she vented that rage, sometimes alienating conservative family-members with her passion and vehemence. 

Many of her personal relationships existed within the movement. My buddies were often the children of her movement pals. For my mother, the anti-war community was a little world, and within this world she knew who she was. She was someone who worked – and did so for many years – to stop the killing of innocents. Being a former refugee, she couldn’t remain idle in the face of her country’s horrific war-making. She made herself a participant in a great project for peace. She lived the life of a movement organizer – and it helped give her direction and purpose. 

Environmental groups offering people meaningful experiences are going to be attractive over the long haul. We’re hungry for meaning, and movements that offer it make a compelling case for our time and commitment.  

Part of environmental organizations’ mission is addressing the emotional and spiritual needs of their members. The projects we need to undertake are not short-term. We are not going to reach 100 percent renewable power nor create all the necessary greenbelts, organic agriculture and GHG emission-cuts by 2020. We require a movement that can keep its adherents – professional staff and volunteers – engaged for many years. That entails building organizations attentive to – and able to satisfy – our longing for cultural life, friendship, community
and meaning.


Gideon Forman is a long time peace and environmental activist.