5. ACTIVIST TACTICS
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
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
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? Doesnt 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., Kelloggs 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
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
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
- 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