Review: Patagonia’s Tools for Grassroot’s Activists

Tools for Grassroots ActivistsPatagonia, the repair-what-we-sold-you adventure clothing retail company synonymous with ethical business—and practically a giant stamp of sustainability approval for anything it puts its name to—runs an invite-only conference every couple of years.

For the conference, Patagonia invites heavy hitters in environmental advocacy from whom they can learn. For example, keynote speakers have included Dr Jane Goodall (chimp documenter extraordinaire), Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff), Bill McKibben (350), and Beth Kanter (leading not-for-profit social media strategist). You know, the kinds of heroes we’d love to be even a little bit like when we grow up.

I’d sell my soul to get into this conference, but I’m far from being one of the heavy hitters in the industry. So the just-released Tools for Grassroots Activists: Best Practices for Success in the Environmental Movement is the closest I’m going to get to being in that room.

Given that this is where my career is heading—I’m this close to finishing a PhD looking at some of this stuff [imagine a thumb and index finger just millimetres apart]—I came to this book with both a keenly critical eye and breathless, fan-girl appreciation.

Edited by Nora Gallagher and Lisa Myers, Tools for Grassroots Activists collates various conference talks and insights gleaned over the conference’s history. My hope was to ferret out some ground-breaking information I could incorporate into my own practice.

And the book does deliver elements of that. Say, for example, tips on refining purpose, and targeting key groups with strategic marketing. But for the most part it offers the also-important elements of motivation and hope and stories about these particular activists’ efforts and learnings.

It outlines in their own words how they have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds throughout their careers, such as defeating the then apparently indestructible tobacco companies that had limitless cash resources to fund their campaigns.

It’s certainly great to hear these not-glossed-over parts (too often history rewrites battles as being efficiently linear rather than painstakingly messy and long-running). And I enjoyed this book and got plenty of shot-in-the-arm inspiration from it, I really did. But—and I fully recognise my expectations might be too high given I’ve spent the last three years avidly analysing this stuff—I was hoping for something a little more.

I understand that the book is a compilation of key lessons from the conference’s history, but it feels a little more cobbled together and a little less robust than expected, with entries varying wildly in structure and theme. Still, once you get your head around that, it’s fine. It meant I ended up dipping in and out of articles and skimming or even skipping the ones that it was apparent weren’t currently suited to me.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to me adoring this text was its design, of which I’m not at all a fan. Highly stylised and eclectic, and with a decidedly plain-Jane font selection, I don’t think it works both in terms of aesthetics, but also in terms of gripping the reader and effectively guiding them through its contents.

Or at least I don’t think it works with the kind of paper on which it’s printed and the book format in which it’s packaged. It just looks a bit grassroots-newsletter amateur and ultimately lets itself down. It’s certainly not the well-designed book I’d expect of a company that understands the combination of form and function is what makes the difference between a successful organisation or approach that can wield good in the world and one that has good intentions but ultimately fails. Again, that could be personal preference and someone else could consider it smashing.

I realise this is a slightly mixed review, and in truth my feelings about this book are mixed. Was it worth publishing and will people derive some benefits from it? Yes, absolutely yes. But could it have been better? Yes. Or, as one of the book’s contributors notes: activists need to get better at how they communicate their messages. Patagonia normally leads by example and it’s doing so with its conferences. Its conference-related publication just needs to catch up.

Green Is The New Red

Green Is The New RedI reviewed Will Potter’s Green Is The New Red—a book not about fashion, but perceived terrorism as the new communism kind of fear-inducing threat—for an environmental publication around 12 months ago.

At the time, although the Queensland government was reaping horrors, the federal changeover was yet to happen.

The dystopian American society Potter describes in his book in which activists rather than factory farmers perpetrating stomach-churning cruelty were punished was, though increasingly something I could almost imagine, wasn’t something I could entirely grasp.

Fast forward a year and with a federal government happily condemning the Barrier Reef and the Tasmanian national heritage old-growth forests and just about everything in between to certain death and, well, let’s just say that dystopian near-reality has become an uncanny, terrifyingly realistic one to which I can relate.

Potter was just in Australia courtesy of Voiceless, giving talks about the terrifying US-proposed ag-gag laws his book documents (hence the re-piquing of my interest in his book). Those laws essentially prosecute not those who perpetrate shocking cruelty on animals in factory farm or abattoir settings, but those who expose it. Say, for example, if you or I were to film someone beating a dog to death in a puppy farm, we—rather than the puppy farm—could see ourselves up on charges.

It would be easy to mistake Green Is The New Red for a conspiracy-theory manifesto (as I did) or fashion bible (as my friend did), but that’s to do it a disservice. Though left leaning, former Chicago Tribune reporter Potter is far from off-the-grid radical, and he approaches the book with investigative objectivity and vigour.

Potter is reportedly being monitored by the US Counter-Terrorism unit and is, simultaneously (and somewhat cognitive dissonancely), a 2014 TED Fellow. It’s that tension and head-scratching puzzlement that makes him and his book intriguing.

Potter’s motivation is getting to the fact-based heart of a matter. It just happens that the facts don’t show agriculturalists, their governing bodies, and those who make and implement policies to be behaving in a particularly ethical, conscionable way.

We enter Green Is The New Red mid-story, on the eve of environmental activist Daniel McGowan’s sentencing for ‘eco-terrorist’ crimes (and yes, I use those inverted commas deliberately). Potter then outlines his own brush with the law, having been paid a threat-filled visit and been added to a watch list by the FBI for—wait for it—handing out leaflets.

Charlotte's WebGreen Is The New Red’s truths beggar belief—Charlotte’s Web and Hoot can, it seems, be considered ‘soft core eco-terrorism for kids’—but Potter’s approach is compelling.

His thesis is laws are being wrangled for not good (ag-gag laws, anyone?) and largely non-violent activists are being rebranded and sullied through language use as ‘militants’, ‘extremists’, and ‘domestic terrorists’. Switch ‘terrorist’ for ‘communist’, ‘Green Scare’ for ‘Red Scare’, he writes, and you have post-9/11 terrorism laws being applied liberally and aggressively to silence environmental and animal activists.

The temptation with the things Potter outlines is to dismiss them as being only in America. The issue is they’re fast also in Australia—one of our own politicians said environmental activists were ‘akin to terrorists’. While the world despairs and expresses its dismay (and B Corporation Ben & Jerry’s takes one of its most popular, aquatic-themed ice creams off the shelf in protest), Queensland Premier Campbell Newman essentially signed the Barrier Reef’s death warrant by greenlighting destructive mining projects and declaring Queensland ‘open for [coal] business’.

Green Is The New Red contains contentious subject matter, yes, but it’s delivered in means that are straightforwardly readable and not without some gallows humour about smuggling files into prison via vegan cinnamon buns. During his Voiceless talk, Potter also showed a flawed anti-activist ad the opposition came up with that depicts an animal rights activists wearing a, er, leather jacket.

Potter’s dystopian present and its attendant legislative horrors might be a little much to take in—I know it was for me then and somewhat continues to be now—but it at the very least warrants further research.

He wrapped up his presentation with a quote I’m paraphrasing here but that has continued to stick with me: ‘The reason activists are a threat isn’t because they’re breaking windows. It’s because they’re creating them.’ With the Australian federal government handing down a big-business-wins-no-one-else-does budget last night, something tells me that quote will continue to come the fore.