My hope as a physicist is that our representatives make energy and environmental policy decisions based on sound science. So far that has not been the case. The main reason for this is that we are engaged in an epic battle between scientists and lobbyists for those with financial or political agendas.
Right now the scientists–the group with the better case for sound public policy–are losing.
I used to think that trying hard and being right was enough. Foolish me! Everything today is really about public relations. The Internet has spawned the perfect storm. Within a few minutes we can now send messages that are read by millions of people. At the other end, recipients are in overload, due to a steady bombardment of these messages. It is very hard for almost everyone to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Tilting Against Big Wind
What this says is that properly phrasing the message and getting it to the right people is critical. Scientists are not good at this, while this is a lobbyists forte — which is a big reason why scientists are losing.
What’s going on with industrial wind energy is a good example. Right now there are at least a hundred local groups fighting this encroachment. By and large these are an informal collection of local citizen volunteers who have a commendable interest in protecting their community from snake oil salesmen. Some of these groups have been successful, others not. What makes the difference?
I have put on my free energy presentation to several of these groups in the Northeast U.S., and have corresponded with nearly a hundred others, worldwide. These groups are amazingly diverse when it comes to the members, organizational structure, website, funding, message, activity, etc. Which ingredient is the key for success?
Let’s look at two groups that are only a few miles away from each other, but far apart in other ways.
Save Our Sound and Save Our Sea Shore: Two Strategies
One of the first groups to form (way back in 2001) was Save Our Sound (SOS). Their main focus was to fight the proposed Cape Wind project, scheduled for Nantucket Sound, near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. SOS was immediately blessed with some well-connected supporters. I was told that one generous benefactor contributed some twenty million dollars (!) to this effort.
This enabled SOS to have a full time executive director, paid staff, board of directors, office space, a polished website, significant money for advertising, etc. I had high hopes that SOS would be the standard bearer for the cause, and be a template that other groups could replicate.
Years later there was another proposed wind project, this time down the road in Cape Cod: Wellfleet. A group of citizens also organized there to fight this threat, and decided to call themselves Save Our Sea Shore (SOSS).
They had zero funding, so all expenses were paid out-of-pocket. They had no executive director, or hired staff, or board of directors, or office space, or money for advertising, etc. They had a much more basic website. Their efforts were coordinated by a few dedicated volunteer activists.
So which group was successful, and why? Well that’s what this post is about.
The answer to the first question is that by nearly any standard, SOSS has been significantly more successful than has SOS. Yes the people with the late start, miniscule money, no professional staff, no board of directors, and no office did a significantly better job than their well-funded neighbor.
How can this be?
In my view, the key decision that any group has to make is: what is their strategy going to be?
To identify the optimum strategy, the group must have a clear idea as to not only who their opponents are, but also their opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. A careful assessment of this situation will reveal the reality that any citizen group is starting off as the clear underdog.
Briefly the opponents are:
1 – The Wind Industry [Lobbyists (e.g. AWEA), marketers (e.g. Iberdrola), manufactures (e.g. Vesta), installers (e.g. Horizon), investors (e.g. Goldman Sachs), utilities (e.g. National Grid)].
2 – Most environmental organizations (e.g. Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists).
3 – Many Academics (e.g. at Pace, Stanford).
4 – Many of their representatives [Federal (e.g. Congress, DOE, FERC), State (e.g. legislators, NYSERDA, PSC, DEC), Local (e.g. county, town board, planning board)]
5 – Some of their neighbors (e.g. lessor landowners, well-intentioned environmentalists)
Their adversaries’ strengths are:
1 – Many more people
2 – A lot more money
3 – Better marketing skills
4 – More political power
5 – A cause that has intuitive appeal (“free, clean and green energy”)
Pretty daunting, right?
Well, what chance did George Washington’s ragtag group of untrained volunteers have against the largest, best funded, most professional army and navy in the world? The only chance that such an outnumbered, out-gunned group has for winning is to take the high ground and hit the enemy where he is weak. Big Wind has two main weaknesses and they are fatal:
1 – Big Wind is a coalition of special interests and does not hold the moral high ground.
2 – Wind power does not work (i.e., it does not: produce reliable energy, produce energy economically, reduce dependence on oil, replace conventional power plants, significantly reduce CO2 emissions, create jobs)
SOSS attacked these weaknesses and succeeded where SOS has (so far) failed. Does the situation at SOS mean that they have bad people? No, simply that they chose an inferior strategy. Does that mean SOS accomplished nothing? No they have had some successes. However with the money and organization and head start they had, they could have accomplished significantly more if their efforts were more appropriately directed. Is the SOS situation salvageable? Possibly. To begin with they have to acknowledge that they are on the wrong path, and then they need to follow the strategy example set by their poor cousin.
Advice from a 25-year Veteran
In my 25+ years of fighting for various causes I have found that:
1) If enough citizens speak up constructively, almost all self-serving representatives will back down.
2) Citizens will take action to remove non-compliant representatives — as they are no longer “representatives.”
3) Active media support and the support of other organizations can be very helpful.
To get this citizen participation:
1) Citizens need to be thoroughly educated
2) Citizens need to have their energy narrowly focused, and
3) The focus should be on a positive goal (e.g., not against wind energy).
Is this easy to do? It depends on the group’s leaders’ ability to organize and to pay attention to detail.
I compare it to baking a cake from scratch. To have it come out right they need to follow the directions carefully. Periodically I hear from groups that are not doing too well, though they tell me that they are doing everything I’m advocating.
When I look into their situation it turns out that they indeed have all the ingredients, but they did something like put in way too little of something, or added things in the wrong sequence. We have a formidable adversary, so doing things just right is essential to maximize the likelihood of prevailing.
Tomorrow: Advice from the Field
In tomorrow’s edition I’ll post an unsolicited letter I received from one of the unpaid citizens leading the SOSS group. It explains what he learned was the best approach to take in their so far successful efforts. If you believe in the merit of profiting from the experiences of others, you’ll find it interesting.
In the meantime you might want to read the article I wrote quite some time ago, summarizing what I believe is the proper strategy to take.
I also strongly recommend seeing an apropos movie, Amazing Grace.