The Stop the Keystone pipeline campaign is one that may have passed many in the UK by but in the US its resulted in a huge victory for environmental campaigners.
In brief, the campaign was looking to halt the construction of a pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada across the Midwest of the US to the Gulf of Mexico. You can read more about the pipeline here, and a few weeks ago President Obama announced that he wasn’t approving the go ahead of the pipeline.
It’s a real success for the campaign despite the fact that the campaign believes it was outspent by approx. $60m to $1m by the oil companies behind the pipeline, and research has shown that spokespeople for the pipeline were much more likely to be featured in the media. Although those involved are keen to point out that the fight isn’t over.
One of the most striking tactics that the campaign used was a fortnight of action in Washington DC where over 1,000 people were arrested for taking part in illegal sit-ins. Watching some of the films from August are incredibly inspiring and moving but in many ways these actions were the culmination of over 2+ years of campaigning.
On Thursday, I joined a ‘Debrief’ organised the New Organizing Institute which featured speakers from a number of the organisations that had been involved in the campaign. It was a thought-provoking session, and I came away reflecting on the following lessons learnt from the campaign.
1 – The importance trusted leaders – One of the speakers, spoke about the importance of bringing Bill McKibben into the campaign. McKibben is the founder of 350.org and was one of the first to write about climate change for a general audience over 20 years ago. The speaker suggested that his involvement changed the dynamic of the campaign, as he was perceived by many as a trusted leader who brought credibility to the urgency of the campaign message.
It’s a reminder that as well as friends and family who remain the best ‘messengers’ for any issue, some authority sources can be incredibly powerful at mobilising a group of individuals. Who are these in our movements?
2 – They called for a bold action – Bill McKibben is clear that the arrests outside the White House was a key tool in moving the campaign from a local one in the states effected to a national one. The called for a bold action, for activists to do something very real and something powerful.
Social media was used to mobilise people to attend the sit-ins in Washington. Many of those who got arrested had not done so before, and the photos and visuals helped to define the issue – make it a visually compelling action, while running the event over two weeks helped to create a political drama that draws out the story, providing an ongoing story that reporters could focus on.
Watching the films from the fortnight you get an incredible sense of a community amongst those involved in the campaign.
3 – Building locally and ahead of time – Although the peak of the campaigns activities appears to have been in August, listening to speakers from both the Energy Action Coalition and Sierra Club, it’s clear that important work that was done over many years to build campaigning activities in local communities.
In the case of the Energy Action Coalition starting on campuses during the Bush administration, knowing that their would be a day when a group of trained and mobilised young people would be needed. While for the Sierra Club it was going to communities in Nebraska and other effected states, talking to people, sharing stories and mobilising them as part of the campaign, long before the attention was focused on Washington DC.
4 – Using political donors and volunteers – The campaign realised that they couldn’t counter the influence of the significant financial donations that the energy industry makes to elected officials in the US, but they could mobilise the tens of thousands of individuals who had made small donation to, and in many cases worked for the Obama campaign in 2008.
Using this tactics they were able to demonstrate the level of concerns amongst a critical ‘base’ that the president needs to re-engage ahead of the 2012 elections. Meetings at regional offices of ‘Organizing for America’, the Presidents election organisation, as part of a Obama Check Up Day also helped to demonstrate this. Although, we don’t have a similar culture of politician donations in the UK, I can still see opportunities in approaching an issue in this way.
5 – Collaboration and coalition – This wasn’t simply an outsider campaign strategy, the coalition was an especially broad one, with insider meetings happening with the White House at the same time that people were getting arrested outside. The campaign was able to bring together environmental groups, alongside farming groups (whose land was threatened by the pipeline), First-Nation communities, unions and other.
A number of speakers highlighted the importance of this, while recognising the challenges of holding it together, especially around the issue of the ‘jobs and growth’ agenda that is critical to many in light of the economic crisis . Weekly coordination meetings were held, but interestingly the campaign appears to have remained a ‘loose coalition’ as opposed to a tightly and more formally constituted one.
The 350.org folk have also written their reflections which are well worth a read.