02/18/2014 08:42 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

Five Questions to Help Defeat Keystone XL

Dear Bill McKibben,

The decision is looming over Keystone XL and the feeling is reminiscent of being four points down with ten seconds to go. Now is the time to go back to the drawing board for a time-out pep talk. The question nags, "Can we win this?" And yet the answer remains, "We must."

We were there with you in spirit when hundreds were arrested for protesting the pipeline. We were there holding hands with 12,000 other passionate humanists -- who actually care about the fate of this planet -- as we encircled the White House. We have rallied, protested, ra-ra'd, and written letters but now it is time to reassess the strategy so that those who hold our fate in their hands have no choice but say "No" to the Pipeline.

Arrests, vigils, and civil disobedience all receive press coverage but these tactics don't actually impact the oil companies. In organizing against the pipeline -- or in any grassroots organizing for that matter -- there are a few questions one should ask in designing an effective strategy, informed by the organizing model taught by Marshall Ganz, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Godfather of community organizing.

The first question an organizer asks is not "What is my issue?" but "Who are my people?" Who are the people in the Keystone XL fight? The ranchers whose ranches would be transected by the pipeline, the Native Americans whose land would be compromised, and anyone impacted by climate disruption or who has a stake in the fate of the planet.

Second, who has the power to make the decision whether or not to build the pipeline? Answer: The State Department has primary influence in the Keystone decision since the pipeline would cross the U.S. border. Secretary of State John Kerry has the ability to influence President Obama's decision but Obama is the one who will ultimately sign or deny the permit.

The next question is "What do they want?" In other words, "What is influencing their decision?" For President Obama, it isn't votes he is chasing, nor for Kerry -- at least in this election cycle. Is it money? Reputation? Power?

Behind this visible face of power is another "face of power," the enigmatic face of those who aren't physically present at the decision-making table but are very much represented in spirit. In this instance (as I'm sure is the case in many other instances), this second face of power is that of the oil companies.

So now we must ask, "What do the oil companies want?" The answer: It's all about the Benjamins. The oil companies, like any company, strive to maximize profits -- and like a nail to a hammer, they see everything as an opportunity to drill.

Lastly, "What do we have that they want?" This is the question that underpins the strategy. The answer: We have money to buy their product. Conversely, we the people or consumers, have the power to impact their sales.

Strategy, therefore, is how we turn what we have (our resources) into what we want to gain. The classic tale in the Book of Samuel, of David and Goliath demonstrates that resourcefulness can compensate for lack of power or strength, through the creation of an effective strategy.

In order to hit the oil companies where it hurts, the best protest isn't chaining oneself to the White House, or to anything else for that matter, but boycotting their product. Organize the half a million people you have on your email list, as well as the 77,000 who have signed the "Pledge of Resistance" into a mass boycott of gasoline.

Like the bus boycott of the '50s, or the grape boycott of the '60s, if you want legal action on Keystone, you should target the private sector since they are ones who can force the hand of the government.

If aligned with the other major entities, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resource Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation and others, and galvanized a million people to refuse to drive for just one day, you would cost the oil companies millions. The longer this boycott goes on, the more money it will cost them. The more money it costs, the more it hurts. And the more it hurts the oil companies, the more the government will listen. We will refuse to drive, starting with just one day, and will continue for as long as it takes.

This is how you win campaigns. You engage your constituents, pinpoint the source of power, identify the influencers and decision-makers, and then galvanize the people's resources into power to make change.

Bill, you have the listserv of activists and our ears. We only have a narrow window in which to influence Secretary Kerry and President Obama. Since the beginning, we have stood with you, and we have confidently followed your leadership. Now is not the time for media gimmicks. Now is our opportunity and obligation to act with an informed and effective strategy to defeat Keystone XL.