I used to assume that all activist campaigns were designed to win. Or,
at least if the activist leaders claimed that a victory was truly a
possibility, I believed them. This, as it turns out, is a wrong
assumption. While studying recent campaigns on bovine growth hormone
and pesticides, I've learned that many groups approach campaigns more
as one would approach a hobby or game than with the honesty and
intensity one would expect. To develop and initiate a grass-roots
campaign with the expectation to lose is a gross abuse of the public's
trust, time and energy. In fact, it is nothing short of what Food &
Water identifies as ACTIVIST MALPRACTICE.
The public has certain expectations from grass-roots activists, and
honesty is certainly at the top of the list. Not just accuracy
regarding facts and figures, but also an honesty about campaigns and
expectations. For example, if the public is told to call an elected
official, there is a certain expectation that the group requesting such
a call has adequately identified a strategic target and has a
sufficient plan to secure a victory. Likewise, if a group initiating an
action knows that the desired outcome is impossible, this fact must be
honestly communicated to the public.
But now stop and ask yourself how many times you've received an update
from a group that asked you to make a phone call or write a letter that
subsequently announced a victory based on your efforts. I mean a real
victory. For example, if you asked for something to be banned or
stopped, it was really banned or stopped, not just labeled or delayed.
It probably hasn't happened much, if it's happened at all.
It's not that the activists or the groups they represent are
deliberately misleading the public. I believe it's more about activists
being negligent in picking strategic targets and, perhaps, a
disconnection from the real world problems that folks in the grass-
roots trenches experience. Activist leaders, particularly those with a
legislative focus, tend to treat the struggles more as some kind of
game than an essential struggle for the health and well-being of the
public and the environment. Why else would groups so readily trade real
reform for hollow, watered-down compromises that do little except
bolster reputations and give the false impression of victory?
Sadly, I also believe that many in the food safety and environmental
movement approach campaigns with the expectation of losing. With so
many struggles taking place in the legislative arena where we all know
that polluting corporate interests are clearly in control, how can we
expect to win? But instead of admitting that this arena is so skewed
against us, many keep going back, almost like they're conditioned to
lose, instead of identifying other arenas that give the advantage to
grassroots activism. If a Democratic President cannot get his own
health care legislation through a Democratic-controlled Congress, how
can environmentalists expect to have that same Congress ban
carcinogenic pesticides, label BGH-treated milk, and extend a helping
hand to small, sustainable farms? Pinch yourselves, it's not going to
happen. And we better start creating the alternative paths that will
allow us to secure the victories the public is expecting.
Defining Activist Malpractice
Activist malpractice is currently best exhibited by the legislative
campaigns to stop BGH and ban dangerous pesticides. Both have chosen to
focus in the legislative arena and, not surprisingly, both are losing
miserably. What makes these campaigns prime candidates for a
malpractice charge, however, is that leaders of both campaigns have
acknowledged that their efforts have a 0% chance of securing a victory.
Take the anti-BGH campaign. Most of the coordinated activities have
been directed at federal legislation and the Food & Drug
Administration. First, the large coalition of farm, environmental, food
safety and animal welfare groups began by pushing for legislation to
ban the introduction of BGH. Despite months of energy and who knows how
much money, the effort failed and--surprise, surprise--a compromise was
reached that, instead of banning BGH, Congress passed a 90 day
moratorium on its sale. Thus, campaign leaders stimulated grass-roots
action and expectations for a ban on BGH but could only deliver a 90
day moratorium. Is there any better evidence to prove that we should
avoid working on federal legislation? And to think some groups thought
this was a victory.
Now the focus of the anti-BGH campaign is again on legislation. This
time it centers on legislation to label all dairy products produced
through the use of BGH. Again, there is a large coalition of groups
working to stimulate calls to Congress and grass-roots activity around
The problem? When I called the leaders of the effort to pass
legislation to label BGH-treated dairy products and asked them to guess
on the probability that the legislation would pass, they all said
"zero." When I then asked why they were putting so much effort into it,
one responded by saying it was "good practice." Practice? For what,
If the chances for passing the BGH labeling bill are zero, why aren't
people told this from the beginning? To the contrary, all the
literature requesting "urgent" calls to Congress regarding this bill
gives false hopes about its passage. To me, this represents a certain
contempt for grass-roots activism and the public. If we are striving
for an honest culture and real reform in our country, shouldn't we
begin by being honest with our constituents and supporters? If Food &
Water sends out an action alert, you can bet that we've done our
homework and there is a very, very good chance of a victory--if there's
not, we'll tell you.
Ironically, the same thing is happening in the legislatively-oriented
pesticide campaign. A huge coalition of groups are calling on grass-
roots leaders to stimulate calls supporting the "Waxman bill." Besides
the serious drawbacks of the bill itself--it calls for a flimsy five to
eight year PHASEOUT of carcinogenic pesticides--the chances of Congress
actually passing it are zero (see box below). Again, I called several
leaders of this legislative effort and, without hesitation, everyone
said that there is "no way" that the Waxman Bill will pass anytime
soon. In fact, despite having some of the largest and most well-
financed organizations supporting this effort, there are only about 30
co-sponsors of the bill in the House_out of 435.
These actions represent activist malpractice. These campaigns and
initiatives mislead the public and, perhaps worse, give false
expectations. The result will be an increasingly cynical public that
becomes even more reluctant to get involved in the essential work for
social and environmental justice. In other words, we all lose from
activist malpractice, even if we're not directly involved in these
We don't need focus groups and polls to tell us that the public is
deeply concerned about the real problems that confront us. But instead
of the same old legislative strategies and the same old defeats,
activist leaders need to find the creative energy to go farther,
inspire the public, secure a victory in a manner that is possible and,
by all means, BE HONEST.
Food & Water does not relish the task of criticizing our peers, but we
refuse to be accomplices in efforts that we believe are misleading and
ineffective. Besides, someone has to speak up and offer constructive
criticism. The public doesn't need any more "practice" calling
Congress, leading activist groups need more creative and effective
strategies to secure the victories the public so rightfully expects.
by Michael Colby
 Michael Colby is the executive director of Food & Water, Inc.
Reprinted, with permission, from SAFE FOOD NEWS (Fall 1994), the
quarterly journal of Food & Water, Inc. To contact Food & Water, phone
1-800-EAT-SAFE. In REHW #401, we discussed Food & Water's successful
campaign to stop food irradiation.
THE PHASEOUT: WASHINGTON'S DIRTY LITTLE SECRET
If you knew that your health was seriously threatened by a dangerous
substance, the rational response would be to immediately remove the
substance from your environment. However, if you were like many people
involved in Washington, D.C. politics, you'd attempt to phase out the
substance over the course of many years, continuing to endanger
yourself in the meantime. Say hello to Washington's most dangerous
legislative gimmick: the "phaseout."
Riding on the wave of mounting public pressure for action on dangerous
pesticides, a coalition of mainstream Washington environmental groups
are [in the fall of 1993] proposing a seven-year phaseout of
carcinogenic [cancer-causing] pesticides. This irresponsible action
completely ignores the failed legislative history of the phaseout...
and accepts the callous notion, put forth often by chemical company
executives, that human lives may be sacrificed in order to satisfy
The fact that carcinogenic pesticides kill people is not being debated:
almost everyone from the chemical manufacturers to grass-roots
activists agrees on this point. Instead, the debate centers on how our
society should respond once aware that an industrial product is killing
people. The choice is between regulation and prevention....
[The environmentalists'] proposal for a seven-year phaseout of
chemicals that are killing people right now is akin to asking fire-
fighters to wait a week before putting out a fire in a building full of
people--in short, it's outrageous.
This is Washington environmental politics at its worst. A close look at
the history of the phaseout reveals that the likelihood of a phaseout
occurring on schedule, or at all for that matter, is extremely small.
Thus, these environmental groups have decided on a compromise that
could result in thousands of preventable deaths of American citizens
during a phaseout period that, more likely than not, will turn out to
be a cruel hoax.
Unfortunately, they seem to have fallen prey to the cynical practice of
concocting and supporting "hollow laws." According to William Greider's
best-selling book, WHO WILL TELL THE PEOPLE: THE BETRAYAL OF AMERICAN
DEMOCRACY, hollow laws involve "promises the government makes to the
people which it does not necessarily intend to keep." Historically the
phaseout has been central to this legislative charade....
As Arturo Rodriguez, the head of the United Farm Workers Union, says,
"Phaseout is not an acceptable solution because of the fact that our
people are dying right now. How can we sit back and say that it's fine
for people to continue dying? How can we be so crass as to even think
--Excerpted from: Michael Colby, "The Phaseout: Washington's Dirty
Little Secret," SAFE FOOD NEWS (Fall 1993).
Descriptor terms: bgh; pesticides; ethics; food & water; michael colby;
agriculture; farming; legislation; lobbying; citizen activism;