Environmental Research Foundation, June 10, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: This is the printed handout that accompanied Peter Montague's PowerPoint talk, "A Few Ideas about Building a Movement," June 10 at the national conference in precaution in Baltimore. This handout was accompanied by a list of potential allies that we could join with to develop a social movement for prevention and precaution.]

By Peter Montague

A. Prevention vs. precaution: definitions

First, let's clear up a definition: precaution and prevention. To me, prevention and precaution are usually not worth distinguishing, one from the other. Precaution is preventive action in the face of uncertainty. Taking action to avoid trouble and prevent harm is the main idea. In the face of uncertainty, we call it precautionary action.

B. The structure of harm: the systemic problem we face

What we've got on our hands is a system that cannot prevent harm

(Thanks to Skip Spitzer of Root Action for naming and describing "the structure of harm." Skip's original paper can be found here and in Rachel's News #817 and #818.)

1. Corporations are pervasive, powerful actors compelled to pursue narrow self-interest within an economic system that forces economic concentration, creates socially and environmentally harmful models of production, and requires perpetual growth (which is impossible to sustain on a finite planet).

2. Those charged with public policy are compelled by corporate influences and the primacy of economic growth to safeguard corporate interests.

3. Mass media, public relations, science, education and the dominant consumption- and wealth-oriented culture reflect and reinforce the corporate system.

4. Patriarchy, racism and intolerance are sources of harm that feed, and are fed by, the corporate system.

5. Corporate interests are projected internationally by economic, military, political and cultural activities and by a trade and investment framework (e.g., the WTO) that has undermined the ability of governments to control corporate behavior.

However, all is not lost.

C. Conditions for deep change already exist and are ripening

** The end of cheap oil is here, or soon will be

** Global warming is upon us.

** Water shortages are worsening in the U.S. and globally.

** Rising inequality divides the top 2% from the rest of us..

** The rising cost of medical care and the high cost of medical insurance weigh on the minds of most people.

** The promise of secure retirement is fading for many aging boomers (which of course affects their children).

** The social safety net created after the Great Depression is being shredded bit by bit year after year.

** Families and indeed the nation are deeply in debt.

** Widespread insecurity afflicts large portions of the populace (good jobs disappearing, debt rising, the children's future uncertain). For many, the system no longer delivers the goods.

** A serious time crunch has beset many families.

** Some ecological limits have appeared on the horizon (no place left to throw away toxics; cost of some critical resources rising, etc.).

** On a finite planet, endless growth in material production is impossible, so the modern economy, which requires perpetual growth, must sooner or later give way to something else.

** And so on and so on... This list could be readily extended.

The response to these realities is accelerating now, and this conference is part of it: the gathering of steam for a broad, popular social movement aimed at preventing problems, not merely "managing" problems.

The structure of harm is not an impregnable monolith. It is held together by outmoded myths, misinformation, unexamined assumptions, bailing wire and chewing gum. History tells us that every system can be challenged and changed. It just takes a social movement determined to make it happen.

D. Building a movement

What is a movement?

A social movement is a joining of campaigns, associations, organizations and coalitions that share a common vision and overall goals, symbols, stories, songs, and information, plus a tremendous sense of solidarity.

A movement involves the major segments of society -- workers, women's groups, students, youth, intellectuals and others recognizing and sharing a common set of grievances, often the absence of democratic participation in decisions. A movement gives rise to cooperative and coordinated action.

A successful movement to change the "structure of harm," to allow a prevention philosophy to flourish, will be multi-issue, international, diverse and democratically inclusive, aiming for class, race and gender justice, environmental and economic sustainability, and fundamental change. "Greening" the structure of harm will not change the structure, though it may still be worth doing, especially if it can be done in a way that reveals the structure and serves some larger strategic goal. (See Reform vs. Transform, item #11, below.)

Barriers and opportunities for building a movement

#1 Divide and rule is all our adversaries have going for them

We outnumber them at least 2 to 1 and often by far more than that. To win, we have to get together and stay together.

We have not always paid close attention to the ways in which our adversaries divide us and keep us divided. We could benefit by studying this reality because "divide and rule" is our adversaries' only CRUCIAL strategy. If they fail to divide us, the game is over for them.

#2 We apply prevention narrowly to "chemicals and health" problems, often not reaching out to people working on other issues who are using prevention, or where prevention could help (see partial list at the end of this handout)

We could apply precautionary/preventive thinking to the problems our potential allies are working on (see partial list at the end of this handout).

Instead of asking people to join US, we can join THEM.

We can make stronger connections and deeper alliances

Deeper alliances require acts of mutual support that may go beyond a group's specific mission or agenda. Can your group examine and restate its mission to make deeper solidarity a more explicit goal?

We can hook up with networks that are doing stuff that is precautionary/preventive but not naming it -- and we can help them name it

We can hook up with groups that are NOT taking a prevention approach and help them develop such an approach

Any group that has the capacity to do so could designate an ambassador whose job is to explore alliances with other groups.

#3 TINA -- There is No Alternative

The whole system is set up to convince everyone that There is No Alternative. (When was the last time for saw a realistic alternative to our destructive modern lifeways portrayed on TV?) As a result, most people can't imagine that another world is possible and that many of the troubles afflicting our communities could be prevented, not merely tolerated and "managed."

We can help people imagine alternative ways of living and being.

As Patrick Reinsborough of smartMeme wrote in Rachel's News #809 "Even though people might realize they are on the Titanic and the iceberg is just ahead, they still need to see the lifeboat in order to jump ship."

We can describe alternatives ways of living in a better world, create a new story in which people can see themselves working and living in a different way.

#4 The infrastructure for a precaution/prevention movement could be strengthened

Prevention is a different way of thinking -- it guides us to search for root causes, not superficialities.

Building any movement requires an infrastructure -- state-level or regional-level organizations that can promote communication, offer technical assistance, and provide a way to discuss organizing, leadership, training, strategy, tactics, alliances, actions. Because prevention is a different way of thinking, we especially need such an infrastructure now.

#5 We can develop a common vision and agenda.

Our adversaries know exactly what they want and they are ruthless about going after it. We should not be ruthless, but we definitely need a vision and goals. As Yogi Berra once said, "If you don't know where you're going, you might not get there." A movement needs a vision and goals, so we can know whether we're getting there.

To be more specific, we lack a foundational economic/political agenda that systematically addresses the underlying issues of corporate power and lack of ingenuity, and our hollowed-out democracy. Much of our prevention/precaution work has focused on government, leaving the principal actor, the publicly-traded corporation, largely untouched. We can change this. We don't have to develop this agenda overnight but sooner or later, to modify the structure of harm, we will need such an agenda to guide our work.

#6 We've said "No" to stuff for so long that we've got to remember how to say "Yes."

Precaution and prevention give us all something to be FOR and many opportunities to say Yes.

#7 Participatory democracy takes practice

We could promote democracy in the workplace (support everyone's right to form and join a union, and to run unions democratically; we could also promote worker-owned enterprises and producer coops [as a starting point for discussion, see David Schweickart, After Capitalism]), in schools (youth activism), through promoting ownership of enterprises, through participatory budgeting processes in communities, and through local civic engagement.

But we can also acknowledge that democracy requires time to participate, time to think about what is right and what we want. This means our agenda will include ways to give people more free time in their lives, especially women. (See Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism, for example.)

#8 We have left it to our adversaries to create jobs, which is the main source of whatever power they hold.

Not all of us need to become expert at local economic development, but we could make it a priority to form alliances with people that do this critical work. There are at least two kinds of groups we could make alliances with:

** those creating early warning systems to learn when firms are in trouble or their owners are aging, so they can intervene to keep the firms healthy and stable

** those developing a precautionary economics: To withstand the "gales of creative destruction" brought on by globalization, communities need locally-rooted businesses that will stay put. Groups working on such ideas include the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), Coop America, the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA), and others.

Without community stability and basic economic security for families and individuals, neither liberty nor justice is possible.

#9 We sometimes allow our adversaries to define us and of course they do their best to make us look silly, stupid, extremist, and out of touch with the lives of real people.

It will be important for us to define ourselves.

#10 We can make sure to include all three environments in our thinking about any problem:

** the natural environment (water, air, trees, etc.)

** the built environment (sprawl, asbestos, chemicals-and-health)

** and the all-important social environment (low income, disrespect, social exclusion, pyramids of status, stress, sexism, racism, the sense that life is out of control...)

By not considering all three environments, we miss huge opportunities to build our movement.

#11 A central question facing any movement: Reform or transform?

Do we stick with short-term winnable goals, or do we aim for grand, transformative change?

One answer is, We can aim to do both at the same time.

We can reframe our local issues so they reveal the nature of the system that gave rise to them. Skip Spitzer of Root Action calls this systemic reframing: "Systemic reframing places big picture issues in plain view, raising public consciousness, identifying connections and suggesting goals and requirements for long-term change."

As Skip says, We can set goals determined not simply by asking the question "What do we want our campaign to change?" We can ask the broader question, "What larger systemic changes do we want to achieve toward which our campaign will move us?" In this way, near-term, winnable goals can be developed that are important in their own right and serve as a foundation for or step to broader change.

#12 As smartMeme reminds us, we can develop story-based strategies for changing the culture with sympathetic characters that personalize issues, engage people's values, foreshadow the future and help people see themselves living and working in a new world.

#13 Our work is based on ethics and can be expressed that way

Our work is fundamentally ethical, and we can express it that way.

1) preventing harm and suffering;

2) seeking justice;

3) protecting the life support system for this and future generations.

We all want to take action to avoid trouble and prevent harm so we naturally search for the root causes of harm, to know what we are trying to prevent. This leads us to the structure of harm.

We are all responsible for the consequences of our actions, which means we think about the consequences of our actions BEFORE we act. We look before we leap, and after we act we continue to pay attention, alert for signs of trouble, ready to change direction or reverse course if need be.

We now know that technologies have great potential for good but also great potential for harm, so we make choices deliberately and carefully to help our communities avoid trouble down the road.

We seek justice for communities, which means we try to avoid piling new burdens on communities already living with more than their fair share of trouble.

We recognize that waste is a glaring sign of inefficiency and design failure, so we aim to avoid all waste, with zero waste the goal.

So that's my 2 cents, folks. Let's roll up our sleeves are think together about, "How can we build this movement?"

What are YOUR IDEAS?