Plug in, act out -- how tech is transforming the environmental movement

One of the wildest Greenpeace protests in recent memory began with a tweet posted by the organization at 5:34 p.m., Sept. 17, 2013: "BREAKING: we've got 4 boats in the water heading towards Gazprom's Arctic rig. We're going to try and stop the drilling #savethearctic."

Nineteen people responded right away. Their comments ranged from "You guys are heroes!!!!!!" to the less enthusiastic prediction that Gazprom, Russia's state-run gas monopoly, would "play rough." The government's response was rougher than @xarelto82 or anyone else could have predicted. Security forces arrested all 30 people on board the Arctic Sunrise -- an icebreaker that Greenpeace had dispatched to the Barents Sea to protest Russia's first attempt at Arctic oil drilling -- and charged them with piracy (Greenwire, Nov. 25, 2013).

Greenpeace went into crisis management mode. A temporary war room was established in the Netherlands, where the organization was hosting an unrelated conference. The stunt made international headlines, but in the 21st century, that's no longer enough; environmental organizations are starting to measure their performance in outcome-based metrics borrowed from the corporate and political worlds.

As events unfolded in Russia, Greenpeace turned to its digital special operations unit, the Mobilisation Lab, to see whether the protest was raising awareness about oil drilling and climate change. Working from a corner pod at Greenpeace USA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., the six-person Mob Lab team used professional data analysis tools to monitor the social media conversation surrounding the incident. The lab quickly homed in on the story's most popular themes and, through focus group tests, identified the specific actions supporters were willing to take to keep the protest from flaming out.

The Mob Lab model won't single-handedly replace the environmental movement's bread-and-butter grass-roots campaigns. "Peaceful protest is still a part of Greenpeace," said Michael Silberman, Mob Lab's executive director. But in the years to come, he said, digital tools and online activism will become an integral part of traditional advocacy work.

The success of this new hybrid approach, according to interviews with nearly two dozen environmental leaders, social movement historians, political scientists and others, hinges on the movement's execution of three main tasks: collecting location-based data on supporters and their habits; producing targeted messaging; and finally -- and this is the key -- incorporating these tools into on-the-ground activism. Silberman calls this last part breaching "the divide between online and offline."

It's a daunting challenge, but the digital gurus at, the Sierra Club and other organizations are optimistic. They're a young, interconnected group, with ties to Howard Dean's groundbreaking 2004 presidential race, the Obama campaigns and Middlebury College, where President Bill McKibben is inspiring a new generation of environmental activists. These believers will tell you technology has created tremendous opportunities for environmental action, just as Twitter and Facebook created new avenues for political action during the Arab Spring uprisings.

"The landscape is just shifting so rapidly," said Jon Warnow,'s digital director and a co-founder of the website. Individuals and groups are able to do things now that "would have been literally impossible 10 years ago."

But the jury is still out on the role these forces play in social movements. Despite the social media buzz around the arrested activists, dubbed the Arctic 30, and the useful information it generated, Greenpeace failed to focus the narrative around climate change. Gazprom is still drilling away. Efforts like Mob Lab could be the next big thing, or they might get lost in a sea of likes and retweets and leave the status quo unchanged.

The new guard

Mob Lab was started by Michael Silberman in 2011. Silberman, a lithe 33-year-old with curly brown hair, was drawn to environmental activism as an undergraduate at Middlebury College in Vermont. He met Dean there in the early 2000s as Dean was wrapping up a third term as the state's Democratic governor and laying the groundwork for his 2004 presidential campaign. Silberman approached Dean at an event and asked him what he should do to become more involved in left-leaning causes. Dean suggested he look for work in politics, and a few years later, the Dean campaign hired Silberman as its national meetup director.

Dean is best remembered for screaming during a concession speech after finishing third in the Iowa caucus. (He went on to lose in New Hampshire and eventually dropped out of the race.) But perhaps he should be remembered instead for his pioneering use of online organizing. Dean and the website surprised experts by mobilizing millions of young and middle-aged liberals using Internet petitions, forums and other virtual "meetup" tools that changed the way we think of political campaigns.

"People were figuring out at the time that the Internet is not just a publishing platform -- it's also a great tool for organizing and fundraising," said Silberman, who helped run the campaign's Internet arm.

After working for Dean, Silberman co-founded EchoDitto, a digital strategies firm. He left the firm for Mob Lab, which provides online organizing support to Greenpeace offices around the world. Mob Lab stages a conference each year that draws an international gaggle of tech-savvy environmentalists. The 2014 event was in Rome -- think World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, only with less opulent parties and more all-day sessions on rainforests and hydraulic fracturing.

The environmental movement is filled with people like Silberman and Warnow, who became interested in climate change while studying under McKibben at Middlebury College. The year after Warnow graduated in 2007, he, McKibben and a handful of collaborators launched The organization helped turn Keystone XL into a household name.

Or take Michael Grenetz, the Sierra Club's former director of digital innovation. When Grenetz was an undergrad at Vassar College, fighting for better campus recycling rules, the century-old Sierra Club was not known for its digital presence. Today, the group is putting the finishing touches on a proprietary social media platform that will connect the organization's online community. The program, slated to launch this summer, is being developed by Blue State Digital, the firm that built President Obama's digital operation.


Clicktivism 2.0

Obama's victories notwithstanding, many observers still question whether online activism -- it's also known as "slacktivism" or "clicktivism," for a person's ability to participate in a cause with the click of a mouse -- is more effective than traditional grass-roots action.

In his now-famous October 2010 New Yorker essay "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," Malcolm Gladwell argued that real social change requires timeworn, shoe-leather activism. The piece helped define a debate that is still raging almost four years later, as organizations try to figure out how social media fits into their overall mission.

"Nobody's cracked it yet," said Chris Thomas, chief innovation officer at the Sierra Club. "There was always hope that digital was going to do great things for organizing." But, he said, "the problem we've had is figuring out how to make those interactions meaningful and not superficial."

Experts who study the issue are starting to understand why that might be. Online activism in the 21st century is just as public as anti-war street protests were in the 1960s. Joining a Facebook group or tweeting about the Arctic 30 is a "public signal to other people that you believe in certain values and goals," said Brayden King, who studies social movements and teaches at Northwestern University. But once someone engages in a bit of online activism, King said, that person's desire to follow up with an action -- for instance, showing up at a rally -- can greatly diminish.

"What social media activism does is it essentially fulfills that need" to be recognized by one's peers, King said. (The same can be said of social networks in general; posts on Instagram are a request for friendly recognition that you baked amazing-looking cookies or are traveling through France.) King added, "There's some reason to think that participating in a public forum with social media may actually have a debilitating impact on people's engagement."

King concedes that it's too early to make a final judgment. But picking a winner in the traditional activism vs. online activism debate might be beside the point because neither one is going anywhere. Twitter is a disruptive force, but someone, somewhere, will always be waving a protest sign on the side of the road. Smart social movement leaders understand this. Pooh-poohing supporters who are only willing to contribute online isn't helpful to Greenpeace, said Phil Radford, the organization's outgoing U.S. director.

"To diminish people's willingness to engage at a comfort level they care about is silly," Radford said. "We're going to need people at all levels of involvement."

King put it another way. "Gladwell's piece ignored a broader point," he said. If social media become the driving force behind activism in the future, "then is it important if the [entire] movement isn't fully committed or engaged? Maybe not. But we don't know that for sure."

Lessons from Hetch Hetchy and beyond

From the start, environmental groups have struggled to attract both a mass audience and a core group of loyalists who cared about wilderness preservation. When San Francisco put forth a plan to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park in 1903, the nascent Sierra Club and its founder, John Muir, launched an unsuccessful campaign to stop the project. Muir failed to capture the national imagination because at the time, most Americans had never visited Yosemite; to regular folks, the park was a distant abstraction.

"Everybody thinks of Yosemite as one of the temples of conservation," said Matthew Klingle, an environmental historian who teaches at Bowdoin College in Maine. "But a century ago, people like Muir had to fight really hard to get people to even listen that building a dam" in the park was a bad idea.

More than 100 years later, green groups are fighting just as hard to block the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial project that would connect the oil sands in Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Few Americans have any firsthand experience in Alberta. But that's far less important than it was in Muir's day, when geography and a slow news cycle made coalition-building significantly harder. McKibben and others crafted an effective anti-KXL message thanks in part to solid online organizing and some high-profile protests in front of the White House.

Keystone XL hasn't been settled yet, but it's clear that the environmental movement can mobilize faster than ever before. That speed and flexibility extend to less prominent issues, as well. Last year, an energy company applied for an oil drilling permit near the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Sierra Rise, the Sierra Club's version of Mob Lab, sent targeted messages to supporters who live near the wildlife refuge. More than 115,000 people responded by signing an online petition opposing the well, and earlier this month, a state committee rejected the permit (the state Department of Natural Resources has final say). The campaign's Florida point person, Alexis Meyer, said Sierra Rise made all the difference.

The endgame

That is not how the fossil fuel industry sees it. The activists who showed up at a crowded March hearing on the oil well were "outsiders instigated by extreme environmental groups," said David Mica, head of the Florida Petroleum Council and the brother of Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.). Mica also sits on the state panel that reviewed the oil well and voted in favor of the project. He said his side did not run a social media campaign.

It's tempting to draw a neat parallel between environmental organizations that gravitated to the Democratic Party's modern campaign tactics and industry groups that have been late to the online game, much like the Republican Party in the last two presidential elections.

"The Obama campaign was on the one hand high-tech and data-driven, and on the other hand people-driven. They found that sweet spot," said's Warnow. "The Republican Party and industry groups have had a harder time finding that middle ground."

In private, industry leaders tend to agree. But few will admit in public that their trade associations, whose interests are closely aligned with the GOP's, have fallen behind the Sierra Clubs of the world in the ever-accelerating technology race. "We're aware of the new tactics" being used by environmental groups, said Betsy Monseu, CEO of the American Coal Council. "We think that those tools are very effective. They're in use on our side of the equation, as well."

Though Monseu would not elaborate, organizations like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity are indeed ramping up their Facebook and Twitter activity. "Companies are taking this a lot more seriously," said Steve Everley, a communications and energy specialist at the firm FTI Consulting. "Businesses are leaving a lot on the table. And they [understand they] don't have to."

Greenpeace may have gotten a head start, but industry groups are closing in fast. Once the gap narrows, and there's no reason to think it won't, Mob Lab's competitive advantage could be eliminated by well-heeled opponents with their own environmental interests. If that were to happen, green groups would have to redouble their efforts.

"I'm not sure what the endgame is," said Thomas, the Sierra Club's chief innovation officer. For now, "what we're really looking for is a new way to do grass-roots organizing. In terms of the environmental movement, I think that's our best shot."

Twitter: @DanielBush | Email:

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