Activism

Hope Happens When We Get Out of Neutral

These seemingly innocuous words are a belligerent lie: "Don’t bother, your voice won’t matter."

Say there’s a political cause you oppose: which of these two public relations strategies would best keep a lid on its growth?

1) Tell people that the movement is gathering steam and it scares you because your interests could be curtailed? Uh-uh.

2) Paint the movement as a marginal, hopeless effort not worth paying attention to? Yep.

A narrow slice of the population with self-serving interests has been using that second strategy to great effect: it’s been saying this about the millions of people and organizations working on behalf of environmental and social justice issues. They’ve had a lot of luck belittling these efforts as inspired by “unrealistic quacks.”

“Use humor to minimize or marginalize the people on the other side,” says the media consultant Richard Berman, who has solicited up to $3 million from the oil and gas industry. Berman often uses videos to undermine the work of the environmental and animal welfare movements (the Humane Society of the U.S. is one of his favorite targets). In a New York Times article from 2014, one of his video spots shows fictitious environmentalists debating whether the moon is made of cheese before calling for a ban on fracking.

People have had a lot of luck with that strategy. But their luck is running out.

Common sense is prevailing and gathering steam: the sheer quantity of poverty and environmental degradation is compelling people to push the needle in the direction of widespread, systemic change. People need clean water to drink, they need to eat, and they need to breathe air that doesn’t make them ill. All around the globe, the degree to which these needs are not being met is growing.

Will this movement succeed? There is no guarantee. But political change happens when people refuse to believe their cause is hopeless, that they are “at the margins and “powerless.” Public-relations scams like Berman’s want to stoke that feeling.

One of the world’s most belligerent lies is delivered in the guise of the seemingly innocuous words: “Don’t bother, your voice won’t matter.” Hope happens when we live our lives as if our voices really matter. When we get out of neutral and join the bucket brigade.

That kind of hope has a distinguished history of achievements: the abolition of slavery, the achievement of equal rights for women, the elimination of child labor. All these causes are still incomplete in achieving their goals, but our world is so much the better because of their successes. I cast my votes thanks to the millions of women who fought for women’s suffrage.

There are calls now from every corner of the world to do something about climate change and mass extinction, to do something about the searing poverty and suffering caused by them.

No one action will do it. But the sum of our efforts can. Is there hope for our world? Every time one of us gets into gear and joins that bucket brigade, hope grows. Nobody joins a bucket brigade because it’s a safe bet, but that act creates hope and drives change. It’s real power, the beautiful “right stuff.”

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Liz Cunningham is the author of Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas. She has written for Earth Island Journal, East Bay Express, the Marin Poetry Center Anthology and other publications. She has collaborated with institutions such as the Academy for Educational Development, the Constitutional Rights Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution. Her website is lizcunningham.net.