Plan. Execute. Win. Activism and net neutrality

Net neutrality carried the day at the FCC. The years-long fight between certain sectors of business and a coalition in favor of an egalitarian internet is not over by any means, but a decision to treat the internet like a public utility is a clear win for activists.

FCC commissioners hold hands during a hearing on net neutrality today. February 26, 2015. Mark Wilson/Getty

As Waging Nonviolence writes, the grassroots campaign for net neutrality stands as an example of how to structure activism:

Today’s net neutrality rules would not exist without the tireless work of activists both in the streets and behind screens. Last year, I interviewed activists about how they planned to win on net neutrality, something that seemed impossible at the time. But they achieved today’s improbable victory by following those plans to the letter: having a clear and concise demand from day one, creating synergy between online and offline organizing, and framing net neutrality as a social justice issue.

Gene Sharp, which the New Statesman once dubbed “the Machiavelli of Non-Violence”, emphasizes one thing above all in his work: if you want to win, you need a strong, resilient plan (much of his works are available online for free here). In reality, most social justice movements are not fully planned out before they happen, but figuring out what the central demand is, what tactics will be used, and what the contingencies if there is a setback or repression is key. The move for net neutrality was impressive in its breadth and organization, and the structural basis for its success is what can be exported to other struggles.

As an activist states, this is just one step, and the fight to cement the victory continues with a new standoff:

“Our next goal is to undermine the telecom industry,” said Zeese. “We want to make them politically toxic so that anyone who does their bidding is seen as someone who is corrupted by a monopoly system.”

There’s always a next goal. Mobilization is power.

Changing the world with pocket change

Ever since I saw his talk at TED 2009, I’ve come to like the perspective of marketing executive Rory Sutherland. His major thesis is that value is more subjective than we tend to think, and thus we can increase value and happiness through ways that don’t cost all that much money or labor. In this talk he applies the thesis to the environmental movement- with enough understanding of what humans value and what makes them happy, you can keep a high level of happiness with fewer material goods. Fewer trees cut down, less plastic in the ocean, a more sustainable energy system.

A later talk, called “sweat the small stuff” talks about how effect and cost are too often assumed to be correlated. The idea that big change could be ingenious and cheap is not in the contemporary vocabulary. In fact, he ends with this graph and asks the audience to name the grey quadrant.


This is not to state that massive social problems do not at some level require a large amount of money and labor. But the point is that if the big parts of a process are a train- the capital, the manpower, and overall goal; then the small stuff are the rails- language, cultural understanding, small-level behavior. If you’re part of the WHO, and you’re trying to eradicate a disease in Pakistan, it’s not just the vaccines and workers. How do you get the population to vaccinate their children? How do you make it universal? How do you avoid clashes with local authorities? This isn’t just a question of money, it’s about understanding other people and encouraging cooperation.

Government programs need comprehensible forms and processes, corporate products need packaging and instructions. If you give machinery to a developing country, it’s not just teaching locals to use it, but also how they will continue to use it and not sell it for scrap. What divides a billion dollars of foreign aid money from being useless (except for a few lucky government officials) or incredibly powerful are small details.

What’s the cost of expanding landfill and increasing cleanup efforts? In contrast, think of how much money was spent changing “garbage” on kiosks in restaurants and airports to “landfill.” Changing human decisions in the small scale may seem trivial at first glance, but in the aggregate it’s key to improving the Earth.