Activist and Social Entrepreneur Jeff Gang on Green Organizing and Green Buying

If an environmental advocate has sent you an email, called your phone, or knocked on your door in the last two years, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve made the acquaintance of Jeff Gang. In his year as a Green Corps organizer, Jeff jetted from California to Maine to Minnesota, leading environmental campaigns and striking fear into the heart of adversaries as formidable as Ronald McDonald. These days, Jeff is less nomadic but just as tireless as coordinator of the Green Life Online, a nascent organization that helps citizens incorporate environmentalism into their daily lives. Jeff recently set aside his phone bank for a few minutes to talk about the rewards of organizing, how to beat bottled water, and why Harvard Professor Gernot Wagner underestimates the power of consumer choice.

SM: Green Life’s website claims its mission is to help “environmentally aware, health conscious Americans make informed lifestyle decisions.” What are a few examples of the choices Green Life will try to promote, and how did you choose to focus on those particular lifestyle decisions?

We want to help people understand that it really is easy to go green, in many ways.  In most cases, you’re saving money, reducing waste, and simplifying your life.  But we also want to unite people around lifestyle decisions that, collectively, will make a meaningful difference on the issues we care about.  So we’re looking for lifestyle choices that are meaningful, tangible, and accessible.  Some such issues: using reusable bags instead of single-use paper or plastic bags, reducing the amount of junk mail we receive, and pledging to use reusable mugs and water bottles.  Stay tuned to our website for more.

SM: In Green Life’s mission statement, it sounds like its services are aimed at the proverbial choir – the people who are already environmentally aware, rather than those who must be made aware. Are you concerned that by defining its audience thusly, Green Life is limiting its potential impact? Any plans to eventually broaden the target demographics?

This is a great question, since you’re getting at the heart of organizing.  We want to work with the choir – folks that are interested in going green – and get them singing.  Right now the choir isn’t very well conducted, especially around the edges, the people who are just starting to think about the environment.

We think engaging and empowering green-minded consumers is a great way to make that happen, so — if I’m allowed to continue this metaphor — other folks will hear our harmonious voices, and want to find out what it’s all about.

But I think there’s something else going on here: the choir metaphor isn’t totally applicable.  Because most people are in many choirs at once — that is, they are interested in a lot of different issues or personal concerns at any given moment.  For example, many people today list their primary concern as “jobs and the economy.”  Does this mean they’re not interested in other issues — that they won’t relate to an environmental message?  No, not necessarily.  And especially in today’s media environment, where people are drawn in by a particular article or issue, rather than affinity to an outlet, there’s a real opportunity for the Green Life to engage people.

SM: Gernot Wagner, an economist at Harvard, recently opined in the New York Times that individual actions, such as consumer choice, have virtually no impact on the environment, and that global sustainability can only be achieved via top-down policy solutions. How does Green Life reconcile its focus on local action with the need for giant structural fixes? Can small-scale change really spark large-scale solutions?

Wagner is getting at some nuggets of truth.  You don’t have to go far to find consumer products that claim they’ll “save the world,” and certainly some skepticism is due.  But I take issue with his conclusions.  If a Harvard professor tells you that you are too small to change anything, who can blame you for giving up?

Let’s pretend he’s right: that because of the size of the problems we face, the ineffable momentum of the status quo, or the political power of entrenched oil and gas industries, no individual actions can play a role in solving the environmental issues we care about. Even in this case, the top-down policy solutions Wagner is talking about – a big carbon-tax bill, or whatever – stand almost no chance of getting passed without grassroots support.  And if we want Americans to understand the issues, give a damn, and work together to press for those policies, we need to get people engaged and energized.  One great place to start is with individual action.

But step back.  Many individual choices together can make a difference, on many issues, especially local ones.  So if I’m concerned with fertilizer runoff into my local lake, I should start by looking at how much fertilizer I put on my lawn, and get my neighbors on board.  Would a local ordinance, or a state law, achieve the same thing?  Yes, and it’ll have a broader effect.  But ultimately you need to start with empowered individuals to get there.

So even for problems where we need big, federal-government-scale solutions, we’ll need lots of energetic people behind them.

SM: As a former Green Corps organizer, you must have come into contact with lots of people who didn’t share your environmental values. How did you deal with such people – would you spend time trying to educate them, or decide their minds couldn’t be changed? Any tactics for talking to those who aren’t already ‘on board’?

This is, in my opinion, a red herring.  Organizers articulate a particular vision of what our society should look like and build a team around that vision. Inevitably, you’ll end up bumping into folks of differing opinion. But the organizer’s goal is to engage your team, and empower them to influence a decision-maker.  The truth is that, in a democracy, you don’t need every last soul on your side, and your time is much better spent working with the folks who are with you.

SM: When you think back on the successful actions you worked on as a Green Corps organizer, such as the defeat of Prop 23 (a 2010 attempt to suspend California’s greenhouse gas emissions standards), can you identify any learned lessons from the way you and other activists approached those campaigns? How about from the unsuccessful ones?

Jeff: Prop 23 was a pretty unique campaign.  It had such a powerful narrative — big Texas oil companies trying to mess with California’s awesome clean energy policy — and electoral campaigns are great to get people fired up: they have a steadfast deadline, and clear outcome.  I didn’t have to do much traditional recruiting — people literally walked into my office wanting to help.

Most other campaigns that organizers will do are a smaller, incremental part of a larger goal.  For example, Think Outside the Bottle, a campaign run by Corporate Accountability International, had a different story.  My goal was to build a local-business coalition opposed to bottled water, all around the Minnesota Capitol building in Saint Paul — a bottled water-free zone.  From that, we launched a press conference and series of meetings with Governor Dayton, asking him to make sure no taxpayer money was spent on bottled water.  On an initiative like this, it’s not as simple to motivate volunteers.  They haven’t heard of the campaign before, the deadline is arbitrary, and there’s no official count that determines whether we have won.  But you end up working with different folks – I had some great student interns – and we did find a belated, quiet victory on that campaign too.

SM: Finally, any good campaign war stories? What was the most rewarding thing about environmental organizing?

Jeff: One of the best things about organizing is seeing what other people go on to do.  I worked with a lot of people this year, sharing my campaign strategies, training them on organizing skills, and working together to make things happen.  A student who volunteered for phone-banks on my Prop 23 campaign is now the Sierra Club coordinator for the Tar Sands Action in Washington, DC.  Another student (in fact, the only person to get on TV during a bottled-water press event I hosted) is helping her school and four others to Think Outside the Bottle and ban bottled water sales on campus.  A canvasser I trained this summer is now getting her Masters in Public Policy.  A grandmother who hosted trainings and distributed Prop 23 signs with me is building support to save her organic farm.

More than the campaign victories (and failures) of the year, it’s the people who give me hope.

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Benjamin Goldfarb

Ben Goldfarb is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, OnEarth Magazine, Earth Island Journal, and elsewhere. He is a former Editor-in-Chief of SAGE Magazine. Check out his writing at and hit him up at @bengoldfarb13.

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