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Rethinking the Rules of Engagement

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In last week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating article, "How David Beats Goliath: When Underdogs Break The Rules." In his patented style Gladwell weaves together story after story of underdogs who defied convention to defeat much stronger opponents. From the Biblical story of David defeating Goliath, to a junior league basketball team of twelve year-old girls, to the armies of George Washington, Gladwell offers us examples of how an underdog is only an underdog when he plays by his opponent's rules. He also offers the research of Ivan Arreguín-Toft, a political scientist who analyzed every war fought over the last two hundred years between strong and weak combatants.

The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 percent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful--in terms of armed might and population--as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time...What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David's winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath's rules, they win..."

What an intriguing piece of data. Gladwell's article got me thinking about the movement to build a clean energy economy and what we can do to turn the tables and put the odds in our favor. By most measures, we face an indomitable opponent. We seek to transition the economy off of fossil fuels, which represent the core business of the largest industry in the history of human civilization. In just the first three months of 2009, these companies spent $79 million lobbying Congress versus $4.6 million by our side--a 16:1 ratio--and a Common Cause study released yesterday shows that members of the critical Energy and Commerce Committee (where the climate and energy bill is currently being watered down) received an average of $107,230 from the energy sector in the last election. 16 to 1. 16 to 1. Those are tough numbers.

I wonder what would happen if we acknowledged our weaknesses and adopted an unconventional strategy. After reading the New Yorker article, I see four principles of a winning underdog strategy that we can apply to the climate movement:

1. Make it a battle of wills, not a battle of skills
2. Empower people to think and act in real time
3. Attack your opponent where they are weak
4. Defy social convention (and be ready to do what is socially horrifying)

Below the fold, I give my take on what some of the implications of these principles are for our movement's strategy.

1. Make it a battle of wills, not a battle of skills.
The first thing we must do is change it from a contest about ability, to a contest about effort. If it's about the ability to pay for more advertising, to pay for more lobbyists, or to control the price of a gallon of gasoline, we will lose. Major environmental groups have invested far too heavily in Washington DC for the past twenty years instead of building our base of grassroots leaders across the country, which has only begun to change in the past few years. We must resist the temptation to staff up inside the Beltway again and remember where the battle can be fought and won. The passion for building a clean energy economy among ordinary Americans is our greatest strength and we need to build on that strength by expanding our grassroots movement to pass strong legislation and get the US to take a positive role in the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen. We need an all out effort from people who care about the future of this country - young people creating viral videos, grandmothers hosting salons in their living rooms, and families showing up to rallies. If we make this about who has more heart, we will win.

2. Empower people to think and act in real time. One of the advantages of being being a grassroots, decentralized movement is that we can operate in real time. We don't need to wait for a CEO or Board of Directors to issue a statement. We don't need to need to convene our leadership to make a decision. Our strength is our diversity, independence, and knowledge of the terrain. Our people know their local schools and communities and can fight the fight on the ground if we give them the tools and information. By using technology from blogs to iPhone apps to Twitter we can give our supporters the ability to counteract a much larger, stronger foe. The Exxons and OPECs aren't equipped for this kind of contest. We should learn from the Obama campaign, which empowered local leaders with the tools to be constantly organizing, both online and, more importantly, offline. We will win if operate in real time.

3. Attack where they are weak. This might seem obvious, but time and again underdogs fail to identify where their opponents are most vulnerable to attack. While cheap fossil fuels have spurred tremendous growth over the last two hundred years, the dirty little secret is that the era of cheap oil is over. It takes more energy to pump less barrels of oil out of the ground and that trend will only continue. Job growth in the fossil fuel industry has stalled. For every $1 million we invest in coal and oil, only five new jobs are created. Yet, when we invest the same amount in clean energy, seventeen new jobs are created. The future of the American economy is clean energy, creating millions of green jobs that can't be shipped over seas.

We've tried their way and it has led us right into a recession, two wars without end, and an uncertain future for our children. Strong climate legislation is the first step towards turning things around. Good legislation leads to more investment, which creates new jobs, now and in the long-term, and improves our national security. We need to position big oil and coal as a dead-end opposition, and win the public pr battle about how we can create new, good clean energy jobs.

4. Defy social convention (and be ready to do what is socially horrifying). I believe we are making tremendous progress toward strong climate change legislation, but we need to do more. We campaign, sign petitions, lobby congress, and raise awareness. All of that is necessary and important. But to really succeed, we need to go the extra mile. To do the unexpected and raise some eyebrows, while staying true to our values and principles. When Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat in 1955, she defied convention and the black community of Montgomery, AL followed through by doing what was "horrifying" and boycotting the public bus system. We increase our chances of winning, if we don't play by Goliath's rules. What will it take? Hunger strikes and fossil fuel infrastructure disruption? A March on Washington? A bus boycott? Remember how arresting the images of millions of New Yorkers biking and walking to work in 2005 was? We did that because we had no other choice and in freezing cold weather. Could we do it again this fall for a higher purpose? Maybe. Or maybe there is a better way...

Bottom line is that in many ways we still seem to be fighting this battle on our opposition's terms, and right now it looks like we're losing. We need to rethink the rules of engagement. A conversation is happening across the movement about how to do just that. What do you think we should do?

This entry is cross-posted at Grist.org

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