Democratic Movement Is About to Pop
earth-changing is afoot among civil society -- a significant social movement is
eluding the radar of mainstream culture.”
I have given
nearly one thousand talks about the environment in the past fifteen years, and
after every speech a smaller crowd gathered to talk, ask questions, and exchange
business cards. The people offering their cards were working on the most salient
issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger,
conservation, human rights, and more. They were from the nonprofit and
nongovernmental world, also known as civil society. They looked after rivers and
bays, educated consumers about sustainable agriculture, retrofitted houses with
solar panels, lobbied state legislatures about pollution, fought against
corporate-weighted trade policies, worked to green inner cities, or taught
children about the environment. Quite simply, they were trying to safeguard
nature and ensure justice.
After being on the road for a week or two, I would
return with a couple hundred cards stuffed into various pockets. I would lay
them out on the table in my kitchen, read the names, look at the logos, envisage
the missions, and marvel at what groups do on behalf of others. Later, I would
put them into drawers or paper bags, keepsakes of the journey. I couldn't throw
Over the years the cards mounted into the
thousands, and whenever I glanced at the bags in my closet, I kept coming back
to one question: did anyone know how many groups there were? At first, this was
a matter of curiosity, but it slowly grew into a hunch that something larger was
afoot, a significant social movement that was eluding the radar of mainstream
I began to count. I looked at government records
for different countries and, using various methods to approximate the number of
environmental and social justice groups from tax census data, I initially
estimated that there were thirty thousand environmental organizations strung
around the globe; when I added social justice and indigenous organizations, the
number exceeded one hundred thousand. I then researched past social movements to
see if there were any equal in scale and scope, but I couldn't find anything.
The more I probed, the more I unearthed, and the
numbers continued to climb. In trying to pick up a stone, I found the exposed
tip of a geological formation. I discovered lists, indexes, and small databases
specific to certain sectors or geographic areas, but no set of data came close
to describing the movement's breadth. Extrapolating from the records being
accessed, I realized that the initial estimate of a hundred thousand
organizations was off by at least a factor of ten. I now believe there are over
one million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social
justice. Maybe two.
By conventional definition, this
is not a movement. Movements have leaders and ideologies. You join
movements, study tracts, and identify yourself with a group. You read the
biography of the founder(s) or listen to them perorate on tape or in person.
Movements have followers, but this movement doesn't work that way. It is
dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent. There is no manifesto or
doctrine, no authority to check with.
I sought a name for it, but there
Historically, social movements have arisen
primarily because of injustice, inequalities, and corruption. Those woes remain
legion, but a new condition exists that has no precedent: the planet has a
life-threatening disease that is marked by massive ecological degradation and
rapid climate change. It crossed my mind that perhaps I was seeing something
organic, if not biologic. Rather than a movement in the conventional sense, is
it a collective response to threat? Is it splintered for reasons that are innate
to its purpose? Or is it simply disorganized? More questions followed. How does
it function? How fast is it growing? How is it connected? Why is it largely
After spending years researching
this phenomenon, including creating with my colleagues a global database of
these organizations, I have come to these conclusions: this is the largest
social movement in all of history, no one knows its scope, and how it functions
is more mysterious than what meets the eye.
What does meet the eye is compelling: tens of
millions of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people willing to confront despair,
power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace,
justice, and beauty to this world.
Clayton Thomas-Muller speaks to a community
gathering of the Cree nation about waste sites on their native land in Northern
Alberta, toxic lakes so big you can see them from outer space. Shi Lihong,
founder of Wild China Films, makes documentaries with her husband on migrants
displaced by construction of large dams. Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez, a member of
the Maya-Kaqchikel people, fights for full accountability for tens of thousands
of people killed by death squads in Guatemala. Rodrigo Baggio retrieves
discarded computers from New York, London, and Toronto and installs them in the favelas
of Brazil, where he and his staff teach computer skills to poor children.
Biologist Janine Benyus speaks to twelve hundred executives at a business forum
in Queensland about biologically inspired industrial development. Paul Sykes, a
volunteer for the National Audubon Society, completes his fifty-second Christmas
Bird Count in Little Creek, Virginia, joining fifty thousand other people who
tally 70 million birds on one day. Sumita Dasgupta leads students, engineers,
journalists, farmers, and Adivasis (tribal people) on a ten-day trek through
Gujarat exploring the rebirth of ancient rainwater harvesting and catchment
systems that bring life back to drought-prone areas of India. Silas
Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor, who exposed links between the genocidal policies of former
president Charles Taylor and illegal logging in Liberia, now creates certified,
sustainable timber policies.
These eight, who may never meet and know one
another, are part of a coalescence comprising hundreds of thousands of
organizations with no center, codified beliefs, or charismatic leader. The
movement grows and spreads in every city and country. Virtually every tribe,
culture, language, and religion is part of it, from Mongolians to Uzbeks to
Tamils. It is comprised of families in India, students in Australia, farmers in
France, the landless in Brazil, the bananeras of Honduras, the "poors"
of Durban, villagers in Irian Jaya, indigenous tribes of Bolivia, and housewives
in Japan. Its leaders are farmers, zoologists, shoemakers, and poets.
The movement can't be divided
because it is atomized -- small pieces loosely joined. It forms, gathers, and
dissipates quickly. Many inside and out dismiss it as powerless, but it has been
known to bring down governments, companies, and leaders through witnessing,
informing, and massing.
The movement has three basic
roots: the environmental and social justice movements, and indigenous cultures'
resistance to globalization -- all of which are intertwining. It arises
spontaneously from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts,
resulting in a global, classless, diverse, and embedded movement, spreading
worldwide without exception. In a world grown too complex for constrictive
ideologies, the very word movement may be too small, for it is the largest
coming together of citizens in history.
There are research institutes, community
development agencies, village- and citizen-based organizations, corporations,
networks, faith-based groups, trusts, and foundations. They defend against
corrupt politics and climate change, corporate predation and the death of the
oceans, governmental indifference and pandemic poverty, industrial forestry and
farming, depletion of soil and water.
Describing the breadth of the movement is like
trying to hold the ocean in your hand. It is that large. When a part rises above
the waterline, the iceberg beneath usually remains unseen. When Wangari Maathai
won the Nobel Peace Prize, the wire service stories didn't mention the network
of six thousand different women's groups in Africa planting trees. When we hear
about a chemical spill in a river, it is never mentioned that more than four
thousand organizations in North America have adopted a river, creek, or stream.
We read that organic agriculture is the fastest-growing sector of farming in
America, Japan, Mexico, and Europe, but no connection is made to the more than
three thousand organizations that educate farmers, customers, and legislators
about sustainable agriculture.
This is the
first time in history that a large social movement is not bound together by an
"ism." What binds it together is ideas, not ideologies. This unnamed
movement's big contribution is the absence of one big idea; in its stead it
offers thousands of practical and useful ideas. In place of isms are processes,
concerns, and compassion. The movement demonstrates a pliable, resonant, and
generous side of humanity.
And it is impossible to pin down. Generalities are
largely inaccurate. It is nonviolent, and grassroots; it has no bombs, armies,
or helicopters. A charismatic male vertebrate is not in charge. The movement
does not agree on everything nor will it ever, because that would be an
ideology. But it shares a basic set of fundamental understandings about the
Earth, how it functions, and the necessity of fairness and equity for all people
partaking of the planet's life-giving systems.
The promise of this unnamed movement is to offer
solutions to what appear to be insoluble dilemmas: poverty, global climate
change, terrorism, ecological degradation, polarization of income, loss of
culture. It is not burdened with a syndrome of trying to save the world; it is
trying to remake the world.
There is fierceness here. There is no other
explanation for the raw courage and heart seen over and again in the people who
march, speak, create, resist, and build. It is the fierceness of what it means
to know we are human and want to survive.
This movement is relentless and unafraid. It cannot
be mollified, pacified, or suppressed. There can be no Berlin Wall moment, no
treaty-signing, no morning to awaken when the superpowers agree to stand down.
The movement will continue to take myriad forms. It will not rest. There will be
no Marx, Alexander, or Kennedy. No book can explain it, no person can represent
it, no words can encompass it, because the movement is the breathing, sentient
testament of the living world.
And I believe it will prevail. I don't mean defeat,
conquer, or cause harm to someone else. And I don't tender the claim in an
oracular sense. I mean the thinking that informs the movement's goal -- to
create a just society conducive to life on Earth -- will reign. It will soon
suffuse and permeate most institutions. But before then, it will change a
sufficient number of people so as to begin the reversal of centuries of frenzied
Inspiration is not garnered from litanies of what is flawed; it resides in humanity's willingness to restore, redress, reform, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. Healing the wounds of the Earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party. It is not a liberal or conservative activity. It is a sacred act.