Coming Out of the Activist Closet

– by The Shitty Activist

coming out of the closet

Back when I was an activist, I worked with communities who didn’t want industrial-scale power facilities in their towns, with their concerns ranging from air pollution, to carbon emissions, to land degradation, to noise, to odors, to loss of property values. A crucial difference between the efforts that ran developers out of town and those that failed to do so was whether opponents stormed the battlefield proudly waving the activist banner, or just took the occasional pot shot from the shadows.

Most of these energy facility proposals were in small towns, which corporations deliberately choose so as to limit the number of people impacted by the facility, but also to cut back on the opposition; a town 5,000 will obviously have less opponents than a city of 500,000.

Another aspect that works in the corporations’ favor is that it’s harder for a resident of a small town to oppose a new facility without pissing off someone they know, be they a friend, neighbor, or co-worker, simply because there are less degrees of separation between everybody. The result is that people in small towns often don’t come out as strongly against industry proposals, or don’t come out at all, for fear of straining relationships and being labeled a troublemaker. Which is understandable, because if you burn bridges with, say, the only plumber in town, you might have no one to unclog your pipes when your toilet backs up.

Years ago, I was contacted by a resident of a small Western town who was worried about an incinerator proposed for his community. He told me he wanted to do everything he could to stop it from being built – as long as he didn’t have to come out publicly. I explained how difficult, if not impossible, it was to stop this facility anonymously, but he insisted he couldn’t attach his name to the opposition. I informed him of my past experience in other communities, where, if one person goes public, others come out of the woodwork. I reminded him that someone has to start that trend, and if he cared about the issue as much as he said he did, that person was probably him.

While this person admitted I was likely right, he still said he had to stay underground, and predictably, the facility was built. Now that it’s pumping out pollutants a few hundred yards from an elementary school, other residents vocally oppose it, but it’s too little, too late.

So the question is, if you really care about an issue in your community – it doesn’t have to be an energy facility – but refuse to do the very thing you know you have to do to win, then what exactly are you doing? Is this a matter of naïve delusion or another case of feeling good rather than doing good?

Now, of course, it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to be nervous about risking their personal and work relationships by coming out against a project. But, maybe people are exaggerating the dangers of going public. I mean, think about it: How much would it tarnish your reputation to be thought of as the person concerned about your neighbors’ health from – in the case of an incinerator – smokestack emissions that the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges emits toxic pollutants that can cause lung disease and cancer?

How exactly would a supporter of industry spin your concern for human life to make you seem like a villain? Chances are, industry attacking you for sticking up for the most vulnerable members of your community would make you seem heroic. While you might make a few enemies, chances are you’ll win more friends.

And, even if – in the unlikely case – it does harm your standing in your small town, ask yourself why you moved there in the first place. Quality of life is probably at the top of the list, making your home away from all the pollution, smells, noise, and eyesores of big city life. When it comes down to it, would you even want to keep living there once industry sets up shop and changes life as you know it?

So, if you’re worried about a new development in town – whatever it may be – your first step is to decide whether you actually want to stop it or not. If you do, then it’s time to do your research, recruit local allies, tie into a statewide and national effort, and come out of the activist closet.

If you’re not willing to do these things, then you might as well not do anything at all, because your efforts won’t amount to much – other than maybe assuaging a guilty conscience.

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