Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: Marshall Ganz critiques enviro activism

Marshall Ganz devoted 16 years to working for Cesar Chavez' United Farm Workers Union. He moved on from the farm worker struggle (as have thousands of others who carried its lessons to other fights) to systematize his understanding of organizing and movement building. Ganz is credited as the intellectual guru of the organizing in the 2008 Obama campaign. If you've had any exposure to community organizing in recent years, you've encountered his "Public Narrative" methodology which grounds action in participants' stories. (This can be inspiring and energizing -- or in pedestrian hands, it can be pedestrian.)

A few weeks ago on the Bill Moyers TV show, Ganz had some comments on how "environmental groups" somehow have not -- yet -- succeeded in turning broad concern about pollution and climate change into a powerful social movement.
… the confusion between marketing and movement building is really a big one. And I think that's one of the things the environmental groups really, really missed the boat on. I think they thought that they could market their way to legislation. What I mean is that through polling and advertising, they could make what, the changes they wanted palatable to enough of the people that they could, in that way, create enough of a ground that they would get the legislation.

That's a marketing proposition. Movement building is ... you know that you don't have a majority. What you got to do is build enough of a constituency that you can develop the power you need in order to achieve what you want. And so what you're doing is engaging people, who engage other people, who engage other people. And you build a movement that way.
Maybe it is just because I'm of the same generation and from some similar traditions of organizing, but like Ganz I've never quite felt that climate change activism has got hold of how political movements gain the power to win the victories they seek.

I know, many folks are trying, especially in opposition to the Keystone Pipeline and to fracking. And there's some people power, especially in poor communities, often of color, where steps to improve environmental quality looks like simple questions of justice.

But listen to Ganz: "marketing," even in the sophisticated form of raising scientific understanding, is not enough. "Palatable" measures won't cut it in a crisis created by our social system -- the capitalist "free market" -- that under-girds our technological wizardry and wealth as well as our, humans', destructive impacts on the planetary ecosystem. This is a fight for the lives of the majority. Our passions and our persons need to be engaged, but the appropriate hooks that would enable great masses of us to engage remain obscure.

My only consolation is that the hooks that will enable masses to engage are always invisible -- until they come to seem obvious. Experiments with climate organizing will continue; we can't know which initiative will finally strike a spark. Organizing for the good is like that.


Hunter Cutting said...

Many others have raised the points Ganz is now making.

In the moment, 2010, there was a brief window of opportunity to push for climate legislation. So the enviros went into muscle flexing mode, not muscle building mode, and in fact the "movement" came close. So, their decision to go for it all right then, doesn't seem entirely unreasonable. and they did put scores of organizers into the field.

Still, Ganz's hindsight is 20/20. So the critique is fair enough.

And what's needed now is ideas for moving forward. I'd be curious to what Ganz has to offer on that point.

In particular, given his association with Obama, it would be great to hear his insights into what can move the President off his pro-fossil fuel agenda.

janinsanfran said...

Hi Hunter: thanks for chiming in. You know about this stuff. Yes, we somehow need to make it more dangerous to politicians to be shills for fossil fuel companies than to listen to us. I sure don't know how, but I don't rule it out.

Elsewhere in that interview, Ganz allows as how we don't have an affirmative story about what society would be like if we "won" -- I think he is right.

This is bad enough when it comes to how to organize the economy - are we all social democrats now, or what? When it comes to climate, we have next to no picture of what living sustainably would be like, so it is hard to generate the part of a movement that comes with attraction.

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