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The Next Environmental Movement

an essay by the smartmeme project about moving beyond the current environmental paradigm
The Next Environmental Movement?

a smartMeme project strategy essay


"As a propagandizer, it is not his work to convince the convinced, but to plead with the unconvinced, which requires him to use their vocabulary, their values, their symbols insofar as this is possible"
Kenneth Burke, Revolutionary Symbolism in America, speech to American Writers Congress, April 26, 1935


Analysis is the most import tool in the social change toolbox. It is this process of analysis— the work to find the points of intervention and leverage in the system we are working to transform— that suggests why, where and how to use the other tools. It is in this spirit that the smartMeme project's first movement building essay focused on direct action at the points of assumption. In this second essay we explore the thinking behind this strategy and how attacking assumptions can not only re-frame the way our society confronts the ecological crisis but also create momentum for new vibrant social movements. We hope this thinking can inform the question that many of us are asking: what is the next environmental movement going to look like?

Beyond Single-Issue Environmentalism

Our planet is headed into an accelerating crisis. Ecologically speaking it is a meltdown defined by the sixth mass extinction, the destruction of the planet's last wilderness areas and the forced assimilation of the planet's few remaining earth centered cultures. Corporate capitalism's inherent drive towards global domination has literally pushed the life support systems of the planet to the point of collapse.

So let's begin our analysis by asking ourselves an often unanswered question. Why has the radical ecology movement failed to capture the imagination of the American public for more than the proverbial 15 minutes? Why in America - the engine of consumption which drives the system of global destruction - isn't there more visible resistance to the suicidal direction of the corporatized consumer society?

One easy culprit is the environmental movements failure to weave our range of issues into a holistic analysis (story) about the type of cultural transformation needed to address the ecological crisis. This failure means that we are competing with ourselves for over-worked, over-stimulated people's limited amount of time and compassion. The pool of aware concerned people not immersed in front line struggle are constantly having to choose between issues. Do I work on global warming or clean water? Corporate globalization or deforestation? Land use or genetic engineering? Unless our campaigns articulate a broader vision they are just more background noise in our information saturated culture. The current consumption of pop culture apocalyptic fair, like The Matrix or Terminator, is a testament that people want a new vision so bad that they entertain themselves with the destruction of the current system.

This system we are fighting is not merely structural - biotech labs, clear-cuts, open-pit mines - it's also inside us, through the internalization of oppressive cultural norms which define our worldview. Our minds have been colonized by deeply pathological assumptions which interlock to create the dominant culture's resistance to fundamental social change.

The Control Mythology


Maintaining control in a global system that creates such blatant injustice relies on the age old tools of empire: repression, brutality and terror. Whether its US approved military dictatorships or America's ever growing incarceration economy, the naked control that is used to, criminalize, contain and silence dissent among the have-nots is obvious.

But this brutality is just one side of the system of global control. Far less acknowledged is that in addition to the wide spread use of the stick the global system relies heavily on the selective use of the carrot.

Most people who live outside the small over-consumption class can't help but be aware of the system's failings. But for the majority of American (global north) consumers the coercion that keeps them complicit with the system is not physical; it is largely ideological, based on mass acceptance of a common mythology. We all know the Big Lies : America is the freest country in the world; corporate capitalism is the same as democracy; humanity is the centerpiece of creation and "nature" merely a resource, technology is a benevolent tool which has allowed modern consumer society to become the pinnacle of human progress, America is the land of equal opportunity regardless of gender, skin color, religion or class background and so on. These webs of myths shape many people's sense of everyday reality and create a control mythology which buys people's loyalty by normalizing an increasingly insane culture.

Media saturation plays heavily into the control mythology by over digesting information and shrinking our attention spans to the point where people can no longer re-assemble the story of the global crisis. Media advocacy group, TV Free America estimates that the average American watches an equivalent of 52 days of TV per year. As corporations have seized the right to manufacture and manipulate collective desire, advertising has grown into a nearly $200 billion a year industry and become the dominant function of mass media. Feminist media critic Jean Kilbourne estimates that each day the average North American is bombarded by 3000 print, radio and television ads.

Elements of the control mythology have become so deeply imbedded in our lives that they now define our culture, as witnessed in the unquestioned, unrestrained right to consume. Increasingly in the corporatized world a person's rights are defined by their purchasing power—health care, education, a nutritious diet, mental stimulation, or access to nature are all a factor of how much money you have. The right to over-consume becomes the centerpiece of the new unspoken Bill of Rights of America, Inc.

The twisted logic of consumerism continue to function as a control mythology even as much of the affluence of working America has been siphoned off by corporate greed. Whether its the digital opium den of 500 channel cable TV, the cornucopia of mood altering prescription drugs or now the terror-induced national obsession with unquestioning patriotism, there's little opportunity for people to break the spell of modern consumerism.

However let's not confuse the glossy advertising world with the image factories themselves. In our last article we talked about the psychic break - the point where people realize that the system is not working and become radicalized. The incredible amount of resources and effort that consumer culture has to put into perpetuating itself through advertising, propaganda, education and socialization is a glimmer of hope that the control mythology is a lot weaker than many activists think. There has never been a more urgent time to ask ourselves: how can we catalyze a mass psychic break?

Articulating Values Crisis

If you believe certain words, you believe their hidden arguments. When you believe something is right or wrong, true of false, you believe the assumptions in the words which express the arguments. Such assumptions are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.
- The Open-Ended Proof from The Panoplia Prophetica,

To articulate the pathology of the corporate system we must avoid debating on the system's terms. As the classic organizer's tenet says "We have to organize people where they are at." In other words, if we tell people the truth in a way that they understand it they will believe it.

One strategy for reaching a larger section of the population and jarring them out of their inertia , is to replace our focus on single issues with a focus on values. It is the language of values that can be our most powerful tool in building a holistic analysis with the ability to subvert the control mythology.

Values shift is the recognition that we must change the pathological values which underlie the global crisis - alienation from nature, consumer narcassism, desire to dominate, fear of "otherness" etc. However we must be very careful how we frame this concept. Picture yourself knocking on America's front door and announcing you have come to shift peoples values. Slam!

A more effective way to capitalize on the power of people's core values to mobilize them is to articulate values crisis. By this we mean revealing the disconnect between what kind of world people want to live in - or even think that they live in - and the corporate world that is rapidly taking over. Understanding and exploiting values crisis can allow us to expose one of the most blatant revolutionary truths of the modern era; the fact that the corporate rule system rooted in sacrificing human dignity and planetary health for elite profit is out of alignment with most people's basic values.

Understanding the difference between strategies that promote values shift versus articulating value crisis is critical to deepening the impact of our social change work. Long term activist and movement theorist Bill Moyer writes about the concept within psychology of "confirmatory bias" or people's habit of screening information based on their own beliefs. In other words people are much more likely to believe something that reinforces their existing opinions and values than to accept information that challenges their beliefs. Therefore if activists promote values shift we are artificially separating ourselves from people's existing beliefs and creating obstacles to reaching the public. Articulating values crisis on the other hand requires that we first position ourselves within peoples existing values. These means laying claim to life-affirming values and showing people that corporate capitalism is no longer grounded in the common sense values it has hijacked.

Although many of our critics are so blinded by propaganda and ideology that they will always see us as naďve, unpatriotic or dangerous there is already a critical mass of people recognizing that our society is facing severe problems. This analysis is supported by the work of researcher and author Paul Rey, who has done extensive demographic research into the beliefs and values of the American public. Rey's work first received prominence through his discovery of the "cultural creatives" which he describes as a new and unrecognized sub-culture which has emerged as the by product of the past 40 years of social movements. The defining characteristics of this new grouping includes acceptance of the basic tenets of environmentalism and feminism, a rejection of traditional careerism, big business and monetary definitions of "success", a concern with psychological and spiritual development, belief in communities and a concern for the future.

Perhaps most profound is the fact that since the mass media of America still reflects the modern technocratic consumerist world view, cultural creatives tend to feel isolated and do not recognize their true numbers. Based on their 1995 data, and confirmed again recently, Rey and his co-author Sherry Ruth Anderson conclude that there are 50 million cultural creatives in America (26% of all adults) and that the numbers are still growing.

The message is clear : our movements need to stop focusing on only the details and start getting the bigger picture of a holistic analysis out there. A simple dichotomy for articulating the crisis is the clash between a delusional value system that fetishizes money and a value system centered around the biological realities of life's diversity. We need to cast these opposing value systems as two very different paths for the future of our planet The path shaped by life values leads towards many choices— the decentralized self-organizing diversity of different cultures, political traditions and local economies. While the money values path leads to fewer and fewer choices and finally the homogeneity of global corporatization.

It is our job as activists to clarify the choice by revealing the nature of the system and articulating the alternatives in an accessible manner. For instance, in an Earthjustice campaign to protect the Grizzly Bear the images appeal to people's values where they're at - in the cities. The image is a familiar one - it is Goldilocks eating her porridge. Only this time in walk the three lizards. The headline reads, "It's just not the same without bears." People might never feel the loss of a wild grizzly, but they can see how that loss would impact their own cultural stories. In a heartbeat the two worlds are shown to be intertwined, losing one impacts the other.

Escaping the Protest Ghetto

One of the biggest pitfalls activists face to effectively articulating the values crisis is the fact that the category of protester has been constructed to be highly marginal by the establishment. Dissent has de-legitimized to be unpatriotic, impractical, naďve or even insane. Unfortunately radicals are all too often complicit in our own marginalization by accepting this elite depiction of ourselves as the fringe.

As a consequence activists frequently ghettoize themselves by self-identifying through protest and failing to conceive of themselves as building movements that can actually change power relations. All too often we project our own sense of powerlessness by mistaking militancy for radicalism and mobilization for movement building. Radicals shoot themselves in the foot when they try to validate their resistance with a visible defection from the practices and ideas of "mainstream" society. These politics of defection by their very nature create obstacles to communicating with the unconverted and frequently rely on symbols of dissent and rebellion that are already marginalized. Visible defection can thwart our efforts to lay claim to the values we need to articulate values crisis thus we end up advocating values shift from a fringe position.

To be successful we must separate dissent from the self-righteous tone which many people associate with protest. We need to dodge the defector labels and be more effective subverters by mobilizing people from within the logic of the dominant culture rather than trying to reach them as outsiders.

Creating smartMemes

We need new symbols of inclusive resistance and transformation. We need new memes- the basic units of cultural information - to convey the values crisis. Memes are viral by nature, they move easily through our modern world of information networks and media saturation. We need to craft smartmemes - designer memes - that articulate the values crisis and can be spread with effective point of assumption actions. We need to be training ourselves to become "meme warriors" and to tell the story of values crisis in different ways for different audiences. We must get a better sense of who our audiences are, and target our messages to fit into their existing experiences. Our revolution(s) will really start rolling when the logic of our actions and the appeal of our disobedience is so clear that it can easily replicate and spread far beyond the limiting definition of "protester" or "activist".

Actions whose messages end as soon as the activists break camp, cannot easily be sustained. We need to create moments that echo and linger in the mind, like the songs that get stuck in your head and the scenes from a film you can't forget. We need to think in terms of a sequence of events, not just a singular moment. Our actions must be creating ongoing image events that deliver smartmemes with the power to move the latent but well intentioned bystanders to join us in our struggle.

Media theorist Sut Jhally states in his essay Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse, that "The imperative task for those who want to stress a different set of values is to make the struggle for social change fun and sexy. By that I do not mean that we have to use images of sexuality, but that we have to find a way of thinking about the struggle against poverty, against homelessness, for healthcare and child-care, to protect the environment, in terms of pleasure and fun and happiness." This is articulating values crisis. We can attack the corporate myth that consumption provides happiness and satisfaction and reclaim real happiness, meaning and fun as the realm of social change.

Carrie McLaren the editor of the radical media critique zine Stay Free! tells a fascinating story of NYC activists who took action against the control mythology. In 1998, Calvin Klein installed an enormous billboard that covered the entire side of a building in downtown Manhattan, covering all the windows. In response to this obvious attack on public space and the mental environment, McLaren and other likeminded activists, created a map that highlighted examples of excessive corporate advertising around the city. These included lighted billboards that shined so brightly they lit up peoples' nearby apartments, corporate "graffiti", city police recruiting ads, and other forms of signage that obliterated or other wise polluted the visual landscape. They sent out a press release and then passed out the "Free City Maps" on 42nd street as a way of creating a political space to talk with ordinary people about the issues of corporate control, consumerism and creative resistance. Eventually due to ongoing actions the city passed ordinances banning such excessive advertising.

Obviously we don't have easy access to the means of production and distribution. This should not be a reason to give up. It should be a reason to challenge us to be more creative. Imbuing social change with laughter and pleasure does not require massive media equipment and budgets. Radical cheerleading , street theater and Reclaim the Streets actions have successfully accessed these very means through spontaneity, artistic expression and humor. These are good starts, but we must find ways to take it much farther.



Telling the Future

A new alternative vision of the future -- authentically new, not a retread of discredited utopian ideas -- is perhaps the most desperate need in the present situation. It will most assuredly not come out of the sometimes airtight
world of current environmental activism.

First, the environmental movement needs to do a good deal of listening to people outside the movement. We need to get a sense of what people actually want, what they long for, what they are willing to give up, what future they hope for and what future they fear. We also need to take stock of the impact that we are actually having on people outside the movement, and learn from it.

We know that ecology is the key ingredient in the future of pan-movement politics because the ecological collapse is the central and most visible contradiction in the global system. We know that the next environmental movement is not a protest movement. It's not a reactive, defensive, single-issue movement. The next environmental movement must be able to communicate that the central political project of our era is the re-thinking of what it means to be human on planet earth. Our battlefield will expand beyond the logging roads, corporate offices and trade ministerials to directly confront the symbols, mythology and flawed assumptions of corporate consumer culture.

As we work to escape the oppressive cultural norms and flawed assumptions of the corporate system we must liberate our imaginations and articulate our dreams for a life affirming future. Our actions must embody these new realities - the points of potential - which can help catalyze mass defections from the pathological norms of modern consumer culture.

A new environmental movement, if it is to catch on outside today's activist circles, must appeal to hopes as well as fears, and it must answer the honest concerns of people who think of environmentalism as just another excuse for government manipulation of their lives. It must come from the land and relate to the land, but it must also have something to say to the people who inhabit the land. It must provide new myths, ones that are more appealing than either the control mythology or the looming threat of a coming environmental collapse.

We are already winning. Life is stronger than greed. Hope is more powerful than fear. The values crisis is in full swing and more and more people are turning their back on the pathological values of the doomsday economy. A common sense revolution - a revolution in consciousness - is already underway. More and more people are recognizing that the collective future of life hangs in the balance. Indian writer and activist Vandana Shiva said it eloquently in her speech at the World Summit on Sustainable Development counter-summit in August 2002 "There is only one struggle left and that is the struggle for survival."

Now it's up to us to weave our hope, dreams and sense of struggle into a new movement that lives up to the challenge...


The smartMeme Project is an emerging network of thinkers, writers, organizers and life affirming radicals who are learning to dream collectively of a different type of activism and a different type of culture. This article reflects the shared imagination of James John Bell, J Cookson, Ilyse Hogue, & Patrick Reinsborough and incorporates feedback from John Michael Greer. If you are interested in expanding upon or collaborating to implement some of these strategies, please join us at the EF! Winter Organizers conference in February or contact us at www.smartmeme.com 415-722-1846 or  smartmeme@riseup.net .

smartMeme Glossary

a few cognitive stepping stones towards building a lexicon for transformative action... ..


Articulating values crisis - a strategy in which radicals lay claim to common sense values and expose the fact that the system is out of alignment with those values

Control mythology - the web of stories, symbols and ideas which define our sense of normal (including limiting our imagination of social change) and make people think the system is unchangable

Confirmatory bias - psychological concept in which studies have shown people are more likely to accept/believe new information if it sounds like something they already believe.

Defector syndrome - the tendency of radicals to self-marginalize by exhibiting their dissent is such a way that it only speaks to those who already share their beliefs.

Direct action at the point(s) of assumption - actions whose goal is to re-frame issues and create new political space by targeting underlying assumptions

Global crisis - the present time in the history of planet earth characterized by the systematic undermining of the planet's life support systems through industrial extraction, unlimited growth, the commodification of all life and emergence of global corporate rule. Symptoms include : accelerating loss of biological and cultural diversity, the deterioration of all ecosystems, the de-stabilization of global ecology (climate change, soil erosion, spread of genetic pollution etc.) growing disparities between rich and poor, increased militarization, ongoing patterns of racism, classism and sexism and the spread of consumer monoculture. Part of the endgame of 200 years of industrial capitalism, 500 years of white supremacist colonization and 10,000 years of patriarchial domination.

image event - an action, story or idea which operates inclusively to challenge peoples assumptions and make them rethink issues. A delivery system for smartMemes.

meme - a unit of self-replicating cultural transmission. The building blocks of meaning (symbol, slogan, images) which can be communicated without being broken down

movement - a critical mass of people who share ideas, take collective action and build alternative institutions to create social change

points of intervention - a place in a system, be it a physical system or a conceptual system (ideology, cultural assumption etc.) where action can be taken to effectively interrupt the system. Examples include point of destruction, (logging road) point of consumption, (chain store) point of decision,(corporate HQ) point of assumption (culture/mythology) and point of potential (actions which makes alternatives real).

political space - Political space is the ability of an opposittional idea/critique of the dominant order (social, political, economic, cultural) to apply itself to actually changing "power relations". It is the credibility of an idea. Does it pass the laugh test for decision makers, through the self-censorship of the corporate media? What level of credibility does it have in the public's mind - can people be mobilized around the idea? Can funds be raised around the idea? Political space is the physical manifestation of our revolutionary imaginations. The extent to which our revolutionary imaginations are colonized is the extent to which we can't implement or really even suggest new political ideas. We have no political space.

psychic break the process or moment where people realize the system is out of alignment with their values.

radical - a person committed to fundamental social change that believes we must address the roots of the problem rather than just the symptoms

smartMeme - a designer meme with the ability to destroy and construct new meaning

subverter - an effective radical who works within the logic of the dominant culture to foster dissent, mobilize resistance and make fundamental social change imaginable

tipping point - epidemiology term to describe point where a disease becomes an epidemic. Popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell to apply to the point where a new idea hits critical mass.

Values - the social principles, goals or standards held or accepted by an individual, group or society. The moral codes that structure people's deepest held beliefs.

Values crisis - the disconnect between common sense values (justice, equality, democracy, ecological literacy) and the pathological values which underlie the global corporate system

Values shift - a recognition that the global crisis is the expression of pathological values
which we will need to change. An area of extreme difficulty to organize since people's values are very entrenched and we lack language to effectively communicate.
virtual geography - the intersection of physical landscape with cultural and symbolic landscapes. A framework for finding targets for direct action at the point of assumption.

homepage: homepage: http://www.smartmeme.com