As for activist tactics, for our tactics, they all have a common, and simple, starting point, which is ethics. Activism is no good if it does not rise above the ethics of those it seeks to change, if its means are not as ethically supportable as its ends. In the course of your activism, for whatever cause, you must never forget this. When considering any new tactic, or application of a tactic, you must first evaluate if it is ethical.

Also, it is important to recognize that this issue will be presented to you in many different ways. For example, the choice of what you should do may be phrased as what is right versus what is effective, with some extremists in your group arguing that you have to be effective. You must resist this, and such individuals. Being right is necessary; it cannot be sacrificed, even if it appears to limit your effectiveness in a particular situation. (For further guidance, see the Activist Ethics chapter.)

Some activism is individual, such as the aforementioned casting of a vote, or refusal to buy a product that is advertised using negative influences. However, much of it is organized. A critical decision you are faced with when you decide to get active is whether to do it on your own or with some group or groups. On your own, you are free to do what you want. On the other hand, groups, with their strength in numbers, are often much more effective. And, you want to be effective; your goal is to effect change. The problem is, as a member of a group you will rarely have control, or perhaps even a say, over its actions. You could easily be at the mercy of the group leaders’ agendas, and whatever actions the group takes, you will be identified with them.

Because of this, you should be very careful about the people with whom you associate. And, if in the course of your activism you find yourself in serious disagreement with a group, or its leaders, then by all means leave the group. Go it alone until you find other like-minded individuals, and then form your own group! (These are called affinity groups.) Similarly, in claiming responsibility for an action, if you plan to identify your group you must first consider the consequences of this on its other members.

This actually raises a major issue regarding the effectiveness of activism, which is that groups regularly splinter and multiply. As a result, they encounter difficulty in organizing and cooperating together, and achieving unity in their struggle. In addition, the targets of such activist causes, which rarely exhibit internal discord themselves (at least publicly), as a defensive response also attempt to bring about such disunity. They are very adept at turning activists against each other, using variations of the tactic of divide and conquer.

Indeed, the most effective activist groups are rarely so institutional; they recognize the pitfalls of social pyramids. Earth First!, for instance, can more properly be called an affiliation (or movement). There is a central body – the Earth First! Journal – but it is not domineering or dictatorial. Anyone can contribute (or volunteer). The occurrence of internal disputes is accepted as normal, and thought best resolved through consensus and compromise.

As for specific tactics, activists act, therefore, they all involve action. As with financial contributions, group membership alone is insufficient. In addition, the keys to success in any activist venture are to be creative, particularly when seeking to overcome institutional defenses, and to have fun. Activism is fun. Marching in a demonstration is a blast. The people are great, and you are doing something important, really doing something of consequence with your life.

Also, we can recall that the predicate of activism is that you have to know what to be active about: whom you should target. This is actually one of the main areas in which modern activists are poorly coordinated. For instance, there is no database, on the Internet or elsewhere, of companies and their misdeeds, sorted by the type of misdeed and the location of the company, including its address and phone number and the names of its executives.

We are surely lacking in the information that we require to be effective. What has happened is that such a directory exists, but it is piecemeal. People involved in a particular cause put their own list together, but it is not distributed widely. (Although it may be available on the Internet, the general public does not know about it.) As an example of this, a group called the IRRC, the Investor Responsibility Research Center, in Washington, D.C., publishes a list of companies that are active in Burma. This list is sold, by subscription, to investment funds that want to be principled, but some copies do make their way to Burma activists.

The problem with this approach is that while activists committed to a particular cause do learn who the culprits are, this information is not distributed widely, not even within the general activist community. But we do not only want to target specific causes, we want to energize everyone, the entire population, to become significantly more active, first by increasing their awareness and then by gaining their involvement. For example, this is the only way to spark a truly widespread consumer boycott.

Another general issue, then, is that the current activist community needs to collect and disseminate this information, on unethical companies and their practices. It has to be made easily accessible, and then widely publicized.

Lastly, you must recognize that before you can legitimately ask others to change, you must first examine your own behavior, and then modify it where appropriate. Otherwise, you are a hypocrite. This in turn raises a second issue, or perspective, on whom – or what – we need to be active about. Regarding our consumption, there are many ethical challenges implicit in the choices that we now have to make. For instance, the choice of synthetic over leather, as for clothing, shoes and accessories, can be restated as technology versus dead animals. In other words, both have costs. You will have to decide for yourself what choices to make, but is there any basis that you can use to minimize your negative effects?

Should you consume fish, given that the oceans of the world have been greatly over-fished? Or should you eat shrimp, even though in the tropics, their main source, the construction of shrimp farms has caused massive destruction of mangroves? Or should you eat beef, knowing that in many countries increasing the size of cattle ranches, to satisfy increasing demand for meat, has led to great deforestation? Indeed, should you consume any sensate organisms at all? Doesn’t their right to survive also imply a derivative right not to be killed by humans?

Then there is the question of “natural resources” in general, the exploitation of the environment for the production of virtually everything that we use. Were the resources extracted sustainably, as in ensuring the perpetuation of biodiversity, and was any habitat reclamation that was required actually accomplished?

There are many other questions as well. How do you avoid eating pesticides and other carcinogens, and also genetically modified food? For the latter, more and more foods are being altered using “transgenics.” Genes are inserted, actually substituted – some original genes are lost in the process – to enhance some aspect of the food, such as its resistance to insects or its shelf life. But the consequences of transgenics are largely unknown. Monsanto, which is one of the largest suppliers of seeds for genetically modified crops, says that the risks are small, but should we believe them? Research has shown that many risks do in fact exist, such as of us absorbing some of these alien genes, but in most cases we are uncertain of their magnitude. Monsanto, in effect, is telling us to take a bet, for a short-term gain, and their profit, and to ignore any long-term consequences. But we have heard this (and are still suffering from it) many times before.

(Monsanto is also ignoring what is called the Precautionary Principle. This is otherwise known as common sense, that you should consider your consequences, all of your consequences, before you act: that you should look before you leap.)

As we can see, there is a lot more to ethical consumption than simply buying recycled goods. The biggest problem, of course, is that we do not have access to the information that we need to make these choices. Few products are labeled as to their contents, or production inputs, including where they came from and what environmental and social costs were incurred in the process. For example, for vegetables such as corn and soybeans, none of the products that use genetically modified versions are so labeled (e.g., Kellogg’s Corn Flakes), and Monsanto and other suppliers are fighting the imposition of such a requirement with all of their resources. (This is a variation of the institutional tactic of secrecy.) Monsanto is even giving away the patents to its genetically modified rice, to speed its usage, and it has greatly increased its budget for “consumer education” (i.e., the brainwashing that genetic engineering is safe). And then, you have to consider a complex product such as a car: how can we ever identify its inputs and calculate their impact?

To understand and control our consumption there are two basic activist approaches that we can use. The first is to confront the suppliers, the companies involved; and the second is to confront the consumers, in other words, us.

For the companies, such production input determination and labeling issues are actually an extension of the earlier described problem of calculating social costs. They are in fact the specific issues that must be considered to accomplish such a calculation. Companies must be encouraged, and if they will not do so willingly, forced, to track all of their inputs, including not only their financial costs (which are already measured), but their social and environmental costs as well.

And, the latter must be identified on the products themselves, to give us the basis that we need to make our choices. In other words, we need to develop a system of social accounting which measures the real costs of production inputs, and which also collects other relevant information, including:

- Were they sustainably extracted?
- Was there any environmental damage that accompanied the extraction?
- Are they recyclable, or “one use only”?
- If they are recyclable, did this actually occur? Were the inputs used to make the product recycled from a prior use?
- To what extent are global stores of the production inputs being depleted?
- And, what were the working conditions of the employees involved in all of the stages of the production process? Did such conditions meet a civilized standard?

Most companies, of course, will be loathe to collect and provide this information, so the burden again shifts to us. And here, we must force the companies to meet their responsibilities by patronizing only those that do, such as “green” merchants. Through doing this, we should be able to drive the others to accommodate us as well. (The label “organic” applies to foods that have not been sourced from factory farms – “animal concentration camps,” and that have been produced without the use of genetic engineering in any form, and also pesticides, herbicides, chemical and sewage sludge fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, animal by-products which are used as animal feed – this was the cause of mad-cow disease, irradiation, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives.)

For your own consumption, to the extent that you can you should simplify your life. Consume as little technology as possible; work towards achieving self-sufficiency; and buy only green and organic. Also, to the extent that you are willing, become a vegan or a vegetarian.

Actually, you should assume the responsibility for your consumption to a far greater extent than this, and the way to do it is to prepare a Consumption Analysis and Budget. For the analysis, you want to identify everything that you buy, use and consume, and their underlying components and ingredients, including the materials, production facilities, energy and labor that were required. One approach to this is to cross-reference two sets of categories: how much you consume of different classes of goods and services; and in the different major areas of your life. The latter includes (1) consumption for your basic existence (at home), including by other people, such as family members, who are dependent on you or with whom you are closely associated; (2) for your employment (at work); and (3) for any other activities that you pursue: what you do for enjoyment and additional education (at play).

The different classes of goods and services include:

- Premises: list all the structures and facilities that you use, including your house or apartment, at work, for travel, and for other activities including dining, shopping, entertainment and education. What types of materials were used in their construction, and what were the sources of these materials?

- Water: how much water do you use, and from what sources?

- Transport: how many miles do you travel, on foot, by bicycle, and in different types of motorized vehicles, both public and private?

- Energy: how much energy do you consume, directly and indirectly, for such premises, transport and activities? What are the sources of this energy: petroleum and natural gas, including jet fuel; coal; nuclear; hydro; alternative sources such as solar energy and wind power; and the burning of wood?

- Food: What is your overall caloric consumption? How much of what you eat do you grow versus buy; is consumed at home versus in a restaurant; is organic and fresh versus factory produced and frozen or processed; and is a meat or some other animal product?

- Other products: what is your general level of consumption and materialism? How much clothing do you have, and “gear”?

- Waste management: how much waste and garbage do you produce; how much is recycled; and how do you dispose of the rest?

Regarding the budget, you want to make a plan to reduce your consumption, particularly of non-sustainable resources. Your overall goal is to have the least possible impact. Also, you want to eliminate from your consumption all unethical items, including such things as nuclear power; genetically-engineered products; products made using other undesirable technologies; goods the research or production of which involved animal exploitation, or any endangered species; animal products in general; and goods which were produced with child or other exploited labor.

One other way to consider this is that your consumption reflects your degree of social conformity. You can use your budget to calculate your Conformity Index, what percentage of your spending is consistent with modern, consumerist/materialist, social norms. In other words, you can evaluate the extent to which you support such social conventions, versus the degree to which you are a real nonconformist.

© Roland O. Watson 2005