I am a recovering sociologist.  That is to say, I got interested in sociology when I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, went to grad school at the University of Chicago and wrote a Master’s thesis, and wrote much of, and finally abandoned, a dissertation that would have earned me a PhD in sociology, had I finished it and demonstrated a sufficient grasp of German.

I didn’t do those things because I got involved with the process of having children and spending time with them and probably for a million other reasons but largely, I think, because I got bored and because I am one of those people who is scared of finishing things and as a consequence does not do a good job of finishing things.  Finishing things requires that you look back and evaluate.  I’m good at things that are ongoing.

But this bit isn’t about me.  It’s about what I was studying, which was the sociology of social movements.  What is interesting about social movements is how our conception of them has changed over time–and how much that concept has to do with the politics of the period.  Gustave Le Bon, an 18th-century social observer, thought that social movements, which he described as crowds, were necessarily irrational and driven by emotion.  Conservative thinkers have tended to hew to this definition, all the way up (or, if you will pardon the editorial note, down)to Ann Coulter.  Less conservative thinkers, from Charles Tilly to Theda Skocpol, reflecting on some of the social movements that have shaped social policy in the United States (and in which, in some cases, they participated) have come to see movements as both less mob-like and more important.  

I tend to fall into the latter category, and the movements I was most interested in–the gay rights movement (which I “discovered” as an undergraduate in the late ’70s, studying deviance), the antinuclear movement (on which I wrote my Master’s thesis), the movement against South African apartheid (in which I marched)–reflected that view.  While I am tempted to turn Le Bon around and aim him at the Tea Party movement, that would be a mistake.  I suspect it is far more a rational policy “thing” than merely a gaggle of conspiracy theorists.

Anyway, all of this came together early this morning when I was reading a New Yorker article by Nicholas Leman titled When the Earth Moved:  What Happened to the Environmental Movement?  I consider myself an environmentalist, and since that’s one of the movements I’ve thought about and participated in, it seemed like it would be an interesting article to read.

I won’t pretend to be au courant on social movements theory.  But what Leman wrote reminded me of the movement that formed the core of my abandoned dissertation.  That movement, known as the American Agriculture Movement, began as a small group of farmers in Colorado who decided to protest the fall of farm prices (in the wake of export embargoes) by driving their tractors cross-country to Washington, DC.  What fascinated me about that movement was the evolution of the “tractorcade,” over the course of a few short years, into an organization known as American Agriculture Movement, Inc.

The American Agriculture Movement (AAM) had, as of the end of the ’80s, effectively transformed itself from a populist organization into a lobbying organization (I attended, as an observer, one of AAM’s annual meetings in Washington during that period).  In doing so, it had come, as Leman would say, to “play the inside game.”

The environmental movement, born to a great extent out of the decentralized Earth Day of 1970, is emblematic of the inside game.  And perhaps it should be–global warming is not something that individuals can do much about (though we can try).  But as Leman points out, neither is it something that governments are willing to do something about (pointing to the failure of “cap and trade” legislation to even make it to the floor).

The inside game is problematic, however, not because it can never work, but because it leaves so much on the table.  And because it wastes a great deal of the energy that might otherwise come to the cause on administrative expense.  It raises funds instead of consciousness.  What do I mean by that?

Any reader of this blog (and I thank both of you) knows that I’m a serious cyclist.    I ride because it’s better for the environment.  I also ride for the sheer fun.  Consequently, I get involved in a lot of “charity” rides, including the American Diabetes Organization’s Tour de Cure (donations welcome!) and I’m also riding in New Haven’t “Rock to Rock” ride, which is touted as an Earth Day ride.

Now, what’s interesting about this is that the Earth Day ride is not being done to educate people about the environment but to raise funds.  Granted, the money will go to good causes, but it’s money.  Where is the movement aspect?  Why not instead of a ride, get people to clean up their neighborhoods?  To plant trees?  To clean the shoreline?

To be certain, there is some of that.  But there is also organizational overhead, and that’s because money walks.  By that I mean that it’s far easier to pay a few people to work full-time on an issue than it is to get a lot of volunteers to do something about it.  I’m an exception:  as I said, I bike because it’s good for the environment (but then again, I enjoy it, so it’s no loss to me).  But in general, social movements tend to evolve in the direction of least resistance, and that means a transformation from the many to the the organization.

Consider the mailings you get from various “movement” organizations.  The Sierra Club.  The World Wildlife Fund.  The American Diabetes Association.  The National Breast Cancer Foundation.  Rails to Trails.  NPR.  In general, you will get a packet consisting of a letter, often with copious underlining; a gift of some sort (either a sticker or some stamps to make you feel obligated or an offer of bag or mug for a basic “membership.”  And with that membership will come a magazine and some minimal other benefits.

I suspect that much of the basic donation (perhaps all of it) is used up in producing and mailing the packet and the magazine.  And I’ve gotten tired of it (I hardly ever open anything that comes in an envelope marked “First Class Presort” because that’s essentially the term for bulk mailing.

The problem with most of these organizations is precisely that they leave so much energy on the table and collect money instead.  They are Movements in Name Only (or MINOs, pronounced “minnow.”  They are self-perpetuating organizations, existing for the sake of existing.  Sure, their employees are committed to the cause, but they’re also–being employees–committed to their paychecks.

I’m about out of time this morning, but this is something to which I hope to return.  Perhaps, too late to earn a degree, I will be putting some of my dissertation on line.  But before I depart this subject–honestly, probably departing it forever–let me suggest something:

No social movement has ever succeeded by becoming an organization.  True social movements succeed precisely because they are so broadly spread that they precipitate political crises.  They force social change.  The next time someone thanks you for your contribution, ask yourself what you’ve risked.  If you haven’t risked your job, or your life, or at least the social disapproval of family and/or friends, you’re not involved in a movement.  You’re just funding a MINO.

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