Posted by keith on February 14th, 2011
For a while it wasn’t certain which side would blink first: the grassroots or the corporate loving heirarchy. Turns out that the grassroots blinked before the heirarchy had even been established. When, like 350.org you have a full time staff of just half a dozen people then you have a pretty easy decision where your loyalties lie: they claim to have tens of thousands of grassroots supporters doing hundreds of, albeit, symbolic activities across the world; they crow about this an awful lot:
World’s Biggest Day of Climate Action Unites 7,000 rallies in 188 Countries
Washington, DC – Just weeks before elections in the United States and climate talks at the United Nations, citizens from Afghanistan to West Virginia joined 350.org’s “10/10/10 Global Work Party” to issue a unified demand that politicians stop dragging their feet and get to work on climate solutions.
Leading by example, citizens in 188 countries joined more than 7,000 climate “work parties” over the weekend to get to work installing solar panels, weatherizing homes, planting trees, and then calling politicians to ask a simple question, “We’re getting to work, what about you?”
That should convince 350.org to stay with the grassroots and capitalise on the momentum they are building.
But then, on 28 January 2011, this happened:
A letter to business-people around the world:
Dear friends and colleagues:
We’re writing to invite you to participate in something amazing — and something a bit untraditional: get your company involved with 350.org.
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you care about making your business green — maybe you’re taking steps to reduce your company’s carbon footprint, or have been educating your colleagues about the environment.Perhaps you started a recycling program at your office, or are building awareness-raising into your product-line. Worthy initiatives, all — and it strikes us that now is the time to join our individual efforts together, to knit together our isolated work into a bigger picture.
That’s where 350.org comes in — it has potential to engage your staff and customers, to complement what you’re already doing by knitting local projects to a global movement. How you participate is largely up to you: maybe your employees could plant 350 trees, or collect 350 bags of trash. Maybe you can put information about what 350 means for climate change on your next green product (like Camelbak). Perhaps you can sponsor an existing local 350 event, put a “Business For 350” poster in your store-front or a similar badge on your website, or host a mini-rally (with your logo on the banner) like the staff of Keen footwear. The possibilities are endless — this is marketing, which we’re supposed to be good at.
Blinking doesn’t even approach what this is – it’s something more like foot-licking and forelock-tugging. If 350.org wanted to tear a rift between themselves and the grassroots supporters that sustain their efforts and, more importantly it seems, keep their public image flashing across the globe by virtue of sheer numbers, then they could have done no better than appeal to that ethereal entity called “business”.
This is the view of another commentator and activist, Lorna Salzman:
This appeal by 350.org to the business community defines the words “craven” and “capitulation”.
First, assign your first grade students some simple tasks. Make them feel good about it. Pin a medal on them for good citizenship. Announce to the world that you have formed a partnership with business to clean things up a bit (caution: do not mention the fact that business bears the biggest blame for climate change by promoting economic growth and overconsumption since your pupils will have to clean up the mess all by themselves).
Then after your pupils pin a medal on you for not giving them too much homework or anything that would take too much time or money, touch them all up for contributions to your toothless empty campaign that cares more about protecting its Brand (350: The Fun Way to Save the World) than about protecting humanity and the earth. Invite them to a Power Breakfast to thank them for their support.
Take advantage of the “power” image of your Fearless Leader by insuring that his bland content-less message continues to be heard and absorbed by the public loudly enough that other voices with real solutions are drowned out and characterized as cranky contrarians or seething hypercritical activists who resent your Fearless Leader’s rise to fame.
It’s hard to see the move by 350.org as anything less than a volte-face, at least on the surface; but what is the motivation behind such a bizarre move? Why would 350.org want to alienate their grass-roots membership?
If we look at the history of the organization, then the question of funding comes to the fore. 350.org was started using seed money from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Bill McKibben is quite open about this, as he has said in the past; believing them to be sincere and good allies in the fight against global warming. He sees RBF as among the most dedicated funders to action and as such will not have a word said against them.
So Bill sees no conflict between taking money from RBF and trying to hold back the system from which the money originated. And I’m inclined to agree to some extent with his line of reasoning, so long as it stops there. But it doesn’t. 350.org, as I have said elsewhere, is a group that carry out predominantly symbolic, politically-based activities which makes them no more than a bit player in the battle against the forces that are killing the global ecosystem. It seems that if 350.org really wanted to be effective then they would never have followed the likes of WWF,
Corporation Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy down the business path.
The logic goes like this:
1) 350.org are set up with the aim of bringing carbon dioxide levels down to 350 parts per million.
2) Climate science dictates that 350 ppm is insufficient to prevent runaway global warming.
3) 350.org refuses to sign the more radical Cochabamba Agreement, calling for a figure of 300 ppm; sticks to its guns.
4) Campaigns focus on working with the system rather than undermining it, further confirming that the 350 ppm figure is influenced by the desire to maintain the status quo.
5) 350.org leadership realise that there is little conflict between calling for 350 ppm figure and working with business, especially as their actions remain symbolic and have no chance of even hitting 350 ppm.
There is also another reason that 350.org feel comfortable working with business, and it’s very much down to the beliefs of the person that 350.org actually is: Bill McKibben. In correspondance, Bill has stated that he is a Christian and takes seriously the idea that people can repent and change – and that people who repent should occupy some of his time.
Quite how a business can “repent” is beyond me and anyone who understands the nature of religious belief. Repent is a completely inappropriate word with reference to a faceless business that exists solely to make money from the exploitation of people and the wider environment. Yet Bill clearly extrapolates the facility to repent to such non-human entities, otherwise 350.org would not countenance working with businesses at all. The fact that Bill McKibben has moved from being a writer and activist, to a writer and high-profile public persona, has distorted his vision for 350.org. The fact that his personal philosophy, as reflected in his book “Eaarth” is one of coping with change instead of undermining the systems that are causing the change (we need to do both) – a philosophy he shares with the increasingly eccentric James Lovelock – has allowed him to embrace the system he should be focussed on taking apart.
The next stage is inevitable: 350.org will become just another mainstream environmental organization, shedding a host of grassroots supporters in favour of a host of PR hungry businesses and sycophantic enviro-celebs.
In my view this is a good thing. Those thousands of people who have been led to believe that forming absurd shapes out of their bodies on beaches and writing fawning letters to politicians have a chance to get out of the symbolic game, and they should do so as fast as possible. Grassroots is not about being told how to make a difference; it is about going out and deciding for yourself how to make a difference.