I’m imagining an American social movement that defeats a dangerous form of energy through mass organizing, legal appeals and nonviolent direct action. In only 30 years, the movement wins the support of the public, drives corporations out of business and demonstrates that alternatives are more economically viable.
A daydream about the climate movement, right? Actually, activists in the United States (and other countries) already showed how it’s done in the movement against nuclear power. As we take on the fossil fuel industry and its supporters in the 1 percent, we can learn a lot from another David-and-Goliath struggle from not so long ago. Activists took on utility companies, the banks that profit from nuclear investments, giant corporations like General Electric and the government — and won.
Campaign failures, movement victories
In looking through the 20 anti-nuclear case studies in the Global Nonviolent Action Database, I was struck by the dynamic interaction between campaign and movement strategy. The movement succeeded partly because the organizers on both levels understood how individual campaigns generate momentum for the movement as a whole.
From Bodega Bay, California in 1962 to Shoreham, New York in 1976 to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1973 and Montague, Massachusetts in 1974, local campaigns fought the industry and politicians. They used a variety of tactics, including teach-ins, plays, sit-ins, picketing and occupying space. They leaned heavily on training to speed up transfer of knowledge on what was working best.
The two most prominent U.S. anti-nuclear campaigns were led by the Clamshell Alliance in New England and the Abalone Alliance in California. In 1977, the Clamshell Alliance organized over 2,000 people to demonstrate against the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Over 1,400 people were arrested for trespassing and were incarcerated for days in National Guard outposts around New Hampshire. Over 500 of them refused to pay bail, and were ultimately released without consequence. National reporters descended on this previously obscure project, and awareness of the anti-nuclear movement skyrocketed overnight.
Most movement organizers are familiar with the moment when a previously obscure issue captures people’s imagination. Paul and Mark Engler call this a “trigger event” in their new book “This is an Uprising.” Not every trigger event results in lasting movement growth, but Seabrook did, because of the diligent work of movement trainers to spread the Clamshell Alliance to newly interested people across the country.
The most prominent of these new alliances was the Abalone Alliance in California. Abalone achieved a breakthrough in its fight against the proposed Diablo Canyon nuclear facility when it organized over 500 people to risk arrest in 1978 and then held a rally with over 25,000 people in 1979.
Despite the favorable publicity and massive growth of each campaign, both Clamshell and Abalone failed to achieve their local goals. The Diablo Canyon facility was delayed, but it ultimately became operational in 1985. In Seabrook, one of the two planned reactors was eventually built. Nuclear power is still generated at these sites today. Looking through a narrow lens, both could be regarded as dramatic failures.
It’s obvious, though, that both Clamshell and Abalone won huge victories for the anti-nuclear movement as a whole. They strengthened the movement by setting a high-profile example of mass organizing and nonviolent direct action, inspiring groups in other regions to expand in numbers and strategic sophistication.
After the massive 1977 Seabrook occupation, and the sustained organizing that followed, not a single nuclear power plant was approved for decades. Clamshell and Abalone failed to block their local facilities, but they contributed greatly to the overall victory.
Fight the war, not just the battle
The activists in Clamshell and Abalone teach us a lesson that is especially needed now: We should strategize on the local campaign level and the movement level. This is hard work — especially when we’re in the weeds of a local campaign — but it is necessary. If the Clamshell folks had said in 1976, “Well, it looks like we can’t stop the Seabrook plant,” they would have been correct. As it turned out, even thousands of arrests and sustained national media attention couldn’t stop Seabrook. But if they had given up their local struggle, they would have missed an opportunity to boost the national movement.
A war is more than the sum of its battles. Lost battles can be victories for the overall war, just as successful battles can be a net negative for the broader struggle. I’m reminded of the journalist who encountered a U.S. general during the Vietnam War and asked him how the war was going. The general replied, “It’s going great! We’re winning nearly every battle.” “Congratulations, sir,” the journalist said. “But I’ve noticed that each battle is closer to Saigon.”
A more recent metaphor is 2013’s debt-ceiling showdown. Liberals gloated over what they called a Democratic victory, but seemed to forget that their “victory” was equivalent in spending to the 2012 budget proposal from Republican Paul Ryan, which at the time was correctly seen by Democrats as disastrous.
Generals and politicians need to pay attention to the big picture — and so do we.
If we accept that we need to be seeing our local battles as part of a larger struggle, here are some moves that will support local campaigns to support, and benefit from, the rest of the movement.
1. Go big
Local activists should consider which campaign tactics will most help the movement as a whole. Ordinary marches and rallies are rarely noteworthy enough for people to pay attention. Instead, go for numbers, dramatic nonviolent actions and other tactics that will make people pay attention. Even when your local campaign seems unwinnable, you can still win a huge victory for the national movement. This is what the Clams did.
2. Feed off others’ momentum
When another campaign, local or national, is getting a lot of press, don’t resent it. Use it! This is not a zero-sum game. Attention and resources flowing to anybody in the movement can generate more attention and support for everybody in the movement. A few years ago, I got arrested in my home state of Michigan to protest Enbridge’s expansion of a tar sands pipeline. When people struggled to understand the issue, I would call it “the Keystone XL of Michigan,” and then it would make sense to them. Rather than resent Keystone’s disproportionate share of attention, I used it to raise attention on the local pipeline.
3. Know what success looks like
When the Clamshell Alliance failed to stop the Seabrook facility, many of its members fell into despair and local organizing suffered. Rather than feeling victorious for having sparked a national movement, they felt defeated. We can do better today. All movement leaders and members should know that success means growing the movement and winning public support for the cause. If we’re doing these two things, even lost battles can pave the way to ultimate victory.
4. National and local is a two-way street
National organizations need to become more adept at supporting local campaigns to strengthen the whole movement. According to Waging Nonviolence columnist George Lakey, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — during the civil rights era — “developed a kind of power grid, one in which local campaigns that heated up and needed more resources could tap regional and national energy: seasoned organizers, money, additional volunteers to join direct action … and a network of allies.” These resources helped generate more drama, more attention, more campaign victories and more momentum for the movement.
Finally, when national organizations get involved with local campaigns, they need to work strenuously to ensure that the local activists get credit where it’s due. This is a challenge because national media like to credit national organizations, but the challenge must be met. Otherwise, debates over ownership and credit can distract people from the strategic value of having the “power grid” that Lakey describes.
Eyes on the prize
Much of this may seem obvious from an abstract level, but the opposite is true when organizers are in the thick of a local campaign. It’s hard to keep the big picture in mind when the local fight is in front of you every day. Especially as the focus of the U.S. climate movement shifts from Keystone and international policy battles to a proliferation of local infrastructure fights, organizers would do well to keep these lessons in mind.
A movement led by people with lived experience of the U.K. immigration system has sprung up to fight for more humane treatment and housing for refugees.
Despite the South’s challenging political geography, Black and white tenants are transforming Louisville and setting the pace for the wider movement.
To build an impactful climate justice movement able to face the challenges ahead, we must first build cultures that care for the people doing the work.
…one problem. Nuclear energy is one of the big three low carbon energy sources along with wind and hydro, and one of the safest sources. So, maybe you’re paving another road to hell out of ignorance and tribalism?
“Safest”? LOL if it weren’t so seriously dangerous that so far, large areas of Japan, Ukraine, and Russia are uninhabitable. & no one yet knows the true carbon costs of nuclear because the waste has still not been isolated forever – an ongoing technical and industrial enterprise with uncalculated carbon as well as financial costs.
And lucky for us, the cost of storing electricity from intermittent sources like solar and wind is already proving to be less than that yet-unknown cost of storing nuclear waste safely, forever.
“Why has the anti-nuclear movement succeeded? It is easy and tempting to write-off its success to dishonourable actions from the leadership of the movement which:
– Distorts information
– Grants itself the luxury of being single-issue, and ignores the rest of the world’s problems when they don’t suit them
– Uses fear-mongering freely and to great effect
– Never, ever feels obliged to correct the record when their fear-mongering is subsequently shown to be completely false”
Don’t forget that a portion of our success is because the lies of the nuclear industry were exposed by activists – like “too cheap to meter” and “peaceful atom.”
Good article, thanks for writing it. Some comments, though. The big innovative actions of the Clamshell Alliance were built upon a base of public education, local organizing, and what the article refers to as the “[o]rdinary marches and rallies [that] are rarely noteworthy enough for people to pay attention.” Sure, “numbers, dramatic nonviolent actions and other tactics that will make people pay attention” are important, but they aren’t possible without constant local grassroots organizing, which is the bread and butter of any effective movement.
As a minor participant in the Clamshell Alliance, I would also add two additional lessons from practices that contributed to the movement’s strength. First, organizing and decision-making were based on the coordinated work of affinity groups, small local groups of activists who knew and supported each other, usually over an extended period of time. Too often today we see local groups being expected to carry out the top-down plans of national groups; this doesn’t lead to strong self-sustaining local groups. Second, the Clamshell Alliance placed great weight on training every affinity group adequately on the principles and practices of non-violence. This training, typically a day long and led by committed trainers, provided a deep basis for affinity groups to draw on, not just for immediate tactics but in all their organizing. “Quickie” non-violence training sessions aren’t adequate. Effective non-violence takes time, reflection, and discussion. For Clamshell activists who have gone on to organize on many issues, this non-violence education has provided a basis that still undergirds our work.
Finally, nuclear power is not an acceptable antidote for climate change. It is many times more expensive than energy conservation and many forms of renewable energy. And nuclear power makes possible the proliferation of nuclear weapons, an existential threat that rivals climate change in its catastrophic possibilities.
People forget that the anti-nuclear movement was about decentralization. Not just organizationally, but centralized electric power. It was the same time as Sun Day (1978), and the same commune types that had had started opposition to nuclear power were interested in other forms of power. Maybe it wasn’t practical, but at least opposition to one seemed often to include interest in the other. There was a time when Marty Jezer would spend half the year working at installing passive solar in Vermont.
But it’s also odd now seeing small groups using civil disobedience against wind turbines, yes centralized power, but still an alternative to nuclear or coal.
Whether it affected the outcome or not, I remember a sudden shift at Seabrook.
I was thinking of going in October of 1979, but reading the manual, I didn’t like the shift of tone. There was more of a push, it struck me as a move away from non-violence. And the cops reacted to that, a bigger reaction, my friend Annie who went said someone with her had gotten her head smashed.
I think there was one more time of civil disobedience at Seabrook after that, and that was it. Something changed, I think a lack of understanding of non-violence. I certainly saw that elsewhere at the time, rules to be followed rather than understanding. I was at the Survival Gathering in South Dakota the next year, and some guy at the side of the road had some broadside about how things had to revert, making perfect sense, but probably dismissed because he was just some guy at the side of the road.
But yet, non-violence held, or at least the idea. What bothers me is that about 2000, there was a turn, the anti-globalization movement moving away, so now the model isn’t non-violence. It’s often back to fighting with the cops, people lost in their “right to protest” not realizing they are getting distracted from their original point. Non-violence pushed aside, people having some vague concept without knowing it well. It’s a language, but it’s also a very active role.
I think you are right to notice, Michael, shifts in tone such as happened even in the year between the 1999 Battle of Seattle and the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philly. I’d suggest a relaxed evening’s ramble through the Global Nonviolent Action Database and you’ll see, among the 1000+ campaigns described there, quite a variety of tones, nuances, cultural symbols that mean different things to different people, and the like. Humans are amazing diverse as individuals AND as groups and certainly as campaigns and movements. I was privileged to be manager of the Database for its first thousand cases, and what I realized is that the power of nonviolent campaigns does not lie in one particular behavioral expression, any more than we all have to do public speaking like Martin Luther King or a speaker of your own particular liking. We don’t understand well the power of nonviolent action but one thing we do know is that it is complex and has diverse impacts on diverse actors in its arena (spectators of different kinds, police of different kinds, reporters from different kinds of media, on and on and on), and I don’t think even Gandhi, who was very picky about what is and is not “right,” would venture to say that nonviolence is “one size fits all.”
After your ramble through the database, you’ll probably be grateful that all those campaigns didn’t instead choose armed struggle to make their point (in which case most if not all would have lost, anyway) and that however much we all have yet to learn, we’ve made an amazing leap forward when we decide to struggle now, today, in this context of injustice and climate crisis, and as Thoreau said put our whole selves into it. You might find the tone of an action is less important than that we act at all, and place your satisfaction not in a cultural nuance (of which there are so many) but in your joining the fray. I believe that’s what Will wants us to do in this column of his — lift our eyes from the micro to the macro, and be able to discern that a big picture can reveal genuine movement forward even when the small picture does not.