I HAVE GIVEN NEARLY ONE THOUSAND TALKS ABOUT the environment in the past fifteen years, and after every speech a smaller crowd gathered to talk, ask questions, and exchange business cards. The people offering their cards were working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. They were from the nonprofit and nongovernmental world, also known as civil society. They looked after rivers and bays, educated consumers about sustainable agriculture, retrofitted houses with solar panels, lobbied state legislatures about pollution, fought against corporate-weighted trade policies, worked to green inner cities, or taught children about the environment. Quite simply, they were trying to safeguard nature and ensure justice.
After being on the road for a week or two, I would return with a couple hundred cards stuffed into various pockets. I would lay them out on the table in my kitchen, read the names, look at the logos, envisage the missions, and marvel at what groups do on behalf of others. Later, I would put them into drawers or paper bags, keepsakes of the journey. I couldn’t throw them away.
Over the years the cards mounted into the thousands, and whenever I glanced at the bags in my closet, I kept coming back to one question: did anyone know how many groups there were? At first, this was a matter of curiosity, but it slowly grew into a hunch that something larger was afoot, a significant social movement that was eluding the radar of mainstream culture.
I began to count. I looked at government records for different countries and, using various methods to approximate the number of environmental and social justice groups from tax census data, I initially estimated that there were thirty thousand environmental organizations strung around the globe; when I added social justice and indigenous organizations, the number exceeded one hundred thousand. I then researched past social movements to see if there were any equal in scale and scope, but I couldn’t find anything. The more I probed, the more I unearthed, and the numbers continued to climb. In trying to pick up a stone, I found the exposed tip of a geological formation. I discovered lists, indexes, and small databases specific to certain sectors or geographic areas, but no set of data came close to describing the movement’s breadth. Extrapolating from the records being accessed, I realized that the initial estimate of a hundred thousand organizations was off by at least a factor of ten. I now believe there are over one million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice. Maybe two.
By conventional definition, this is not a movement. Movements have leaders and ideologies. You join movements, study tracts, and identify yourself with a group. You read the biography of the founder(s) or listen to them perorate on tape or in person. Movements have followers, but this movement doesn’t work that way. It is dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent. There is no manifesto or doctrine, no authority to check with.
I sought a name for it, but there isn’t one.
Historically, social movements have arisen primarily because of injustice, inequalities, and corruption. Those woes remain legion, but a new condition exists that has no precedent: the planet has a life-threatening disease that is marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change. It crossed my mind that perhaps I was seeing something organic, if not biologic. Rather than a movement in the conventional sense, is it a collective response to threat? Is it splintered for reasons that are innate to its purpose? Or is it simply disorganized? More questions followed. How does it function? How fast is it growing? How is it connected? Why is it largely ignored?
After spending years researching this phenomenon, including creating with my colleagues a global database of these organizations, I have come to these conclusions: this is the largest social movement in all of history, no one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye.
What does meet the eye is compelling: tens of millions of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.
CLAYTON THOMAS-MÜLLER SPEAKS to a community gathering of the Cree nation about waste sites on their native land in Northern Alberta, toxic lakes so big you can see them from outer space. Shi Lihong, founder of Wild China Films, makes documentaries with her husband on migrants displaced by construction of large dams. Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez, a member of the Maya-Kaqchikel people, fights for full accountability for tens of thousands of people killed by death squads in Guatemala. Rodrigo Baggio retrieves discarded computers from New York, London, and Toronto and installs them in the favelas of Brazil, where he and his staff teach computer skills to poor children. Biologist Janine Benyus speaks to twelve hundred executives at a business forum in Queensland about biologically inspired industrial development. Paul Sykes, a volunteer for the National Audubon Society, completes his fifty-second Christmas Bird Count in Little Creek, Virginia, joining fifty thousand other people who tally 70 million birds on one day. Sumita Dasgupta leads students, engineers, journalists, farmers, and Adivasis (tribal people) on a ten-day trek through Gujarat exploring the rebirth of ancient rainwater harvesting and catchment systems that bring life back to drought-prone areas of India. Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor, who exposed links between the genocidal policies of former president Charles Taylor and illegal logging in Liberia, now creates certified, sustainable timber policies.
These eight, who may never meet and know one another, are part of a coalescence comprising hundreds of thousands of organizations with no center, codified beliefs, or charismatic leader. The movement grows and spreads in every city and country. Virtually every tribe, culture, language, and religion is part of it, from Mongolians to Uzbeks to Tamils. It is comprised of families in India, students in Australia, farmers in France, the landless in Brazil, the bananeras of Honduras, the “poors” of Durban, villagers in Irian Jaya, indigenous tribes of Bolivia, and housewives in Japan. Its leaders are farmers, zoologists, shoemakers, and poets.
The movement can’t be divided because it is atomized — small pieces loosely joined. It forms, gathers, and dissipates quickly. Many inside and out dismiss it as powerless, but it has been known to bring down governments, companies, and leaders through witnessing, informing, and massing.
The movement has three basic roots: the environmental and social justice movements, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization — all of which are intertwining. It arises spontaneously from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts, resulting in a global, classless, diverse, and embedded movement, spreading worldwide without exception. In a world grown too complex for constrictive ideologies, the very word movement may be too small, for it is the largest coming together of citizens in history.
There are research institutes, community development agencies, village- and citizen-based organizations, corporations, networks, faith-based groups, trusts, and foundations. They defend against corrupt politics and climate change, corporate predation and the death of the oceans, governmental indifference and pandemic poverty, industrial forestry and farming, depletion of soil and water.
Describing the breadth of the movement is like trying to hold the ocean in your hand. It is that large. When a part rises above the waterline, the iceberg beneath usually remains unseen. When Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize, the wire service stories didn’t mention the network of six thousand different women’s groups in Africa planting trees. When we hear about a chemical spill in a river, it is never mentioned that more than four thousand organizations in North America have adopted a river, creek, or stream. We read that organic agriculture is the fastest-growing sector of farming in America, Japan, Mexico, and Europe, but no connection is made to the more than three thousand organizations that educate farmers, customers, and legislators about sustainable agriculture.
This is the first time in history that a large social movement is not bound together by an “ism.” What binds it together is ideas, not ideologies. This unnamed movement’s big contribution is the absence of one big idea; in its stead it offers thousands of practical and useful ideas. In place of isms are processes, concerns, and compassion. The movement demonstrates a pliable, resonant, and generous side of humanity.
And it is impossible to pin down. Generalities are largely inaccurate. It is nonviolent, and grassroots; it has no bombs, armies, or helicopters. A charismatic male vertebrate is not in charge. The movement does not agree on everything nor will it ever, because that would be an ideology. But it shares a basic set of fundamental understandings about the Earth, how it functions, and the necessity of fairness and equity for all people partaking of the planet’s life-giving systems.
The promise of this unnamed movement is to offer solutions to what appear to be insoluble dilemmas: poverty, global climate change, terrorism, ecological degradation, polarization of income, loss of culture. It is not burdened with a syndrome of trying to save the world; it is trying to remake the world.
THERE IS FIERCENESS HERE. There is no other explanation for the raw courage and heart seen over and again in the people who march, speak, create, resist, and build. It is the fierceness of what it means to know we are human and want to survive.
This movement is relentless and unafraid. It cannot be mollified, pacified, or suppressed. There can be no Berlin Wall moment, no treaty-signing, no morning to awaken when the superpowers agree to stand down. The movement will continue to take myriad forms. It will not rest. There will be no Marx, Alexander, or Kennedy. No book can explain it, no person can represent it, no words can encompass it, because the movement is the breathing, sentient testament of the living world.
And I believe it will prevail. I don’t mean defeat, conquer, or cause harm to someone else. And I don’t tender the claim in an oracular sense. I mean the thinking that informs the movement’s goal — to create a just society conducive to life on Earth — will reign. It will soon suffuse and permeate most institutions. But before then, it will change a sufficient number of people so as to begin the reversal of centuries of frenzied self-destruction.
Inspiration is not garnered from litanies of what is flawed; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. Healing the wounds of the Earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party. It is not a liberal or conservative activity. It is a sacred act.