The NRA and the Anti-Biomass Movement

– by Josh Schlossberg, August 2, 2013, The Biomass Monitor 

Don’t worry. This article won’t flesh out the arguments for or against an assault weapons ban, mandatory background checks, or restrictions on magazine size. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with guns at all.

Whether you think the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a fortress of freedom or a bulwark of bloodlust, there’s one thing almost everyone can agree on: how effective the organization has been in its mission-driven advocacy to “protect the Second Amendment right to bear arms.”

The secret of the NRA’s success (besides copious funding)? Crystal clear messaging and uncompromising political pressure. Two aspects the national anti-biomass movement must adopt in order to halt the construction of dirty biomass energy facilities.

To Win a Movement 

Let’s be honest. While the mainstream environmental movement has many notable achievements under its belt—the Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—can any greenie say with a straight face that we’re winning the battle to protect the natural world that gives us life?

Runaway climate change. Mass species extinction. Toxic pesticide contamination. Ceaseless forest degradation. All the while, worldwide energy consumption skyrockets, spurring the most destructive forms of extreme extraction ever devised.

A movement doesn’t fail from demanding too much, but by asking too little. Abolitionists didn’t end human bondage by proposing better working conditions for slaves. The women’s suffrage movement didn’t win the vote by requesting occasional access to the ballot box. Civil rights freedom fighters weren’t content with only partial equality under the law. A winning team asks for what it wants and refuses to settle for anything less.

The greatest successes in the environmental movement have typically come from the grassroots. Communities that have beaten back dirty energy and waste facilities over recent decades — an estimated 50-90% — have succeeded by unapologetically opposing the siting and construction of those polluting incinerators, not by seeking out some middle ground between the needs of human beings and the desires of industry.

It’s important for the environmental movement to understand that industry doesn’t have a conscience. Not only is it in the best interest of a corporation to bleed the planet for all it’s worth, it can be held legally liable by its shareholders if it doesn’t rake in maximum profit. The only way to curb industry’s voracious appetite is for the opposing side to demand that that the water stays in the river, the oil stays in the ground, and the trees stay in the forest.

How Advocacy Works 

Most NRA supporters know that some restrictions on gun ownership are necessary and that more are probably inevitable. They understand that gun control advocates are powerful, many, and have legitimate concerns. They realize some politicians are looking for a compromise on the gun issue. So the NRA makes certain that its argument for gun rights is communicated loud and clear, knowing full well that its demands will be tempered over the long run.

Many gun owners — including some NRA members — don’t agree with all the NRA’s positions. One poll calculates that 74% of NRA members support universal background checks, a measure the organization has argued vehemently against. But even when gun advocates disagree with the NRA on some points, they know the best way to prevent more restrictive gun laws is to support an organization that draws a line in the sand. Gun control advocates pull in one direction, the NRA pulls in the other, and — for better or for worse — we get something resembling balance in this political tug of war (though some may argue that the scales are tilted in favor of the NRA).

Unfortunately, the wider environmental movement seems uninterested in these lessons. Excuses range from the need to bow to “political reality” (a.k.a. cynicism), to an unwillingness to risk losing access to politicians (a.k.a. status), to the recommendations of “experts” (a.k.a. “specialists,” whose blinders prevent them from seeing the bigger picture), to the preferences of foundation funders (a.k.a. corporations). The good news? Of all the enviro causes, the grassroots anti-biomass movement stands the best chance of bucking this disastrous trend.

Playing Offense 

Biomass opponents stand on the brink of something unprecedented in the history of the environmental movement: stopping something harmful to the planet before it gets out of hand. Nearly every other form of green resistance—anti-nuclear, anti-fossil fuels, anti-pesticides, etc.—has gained momentum only after the problem has become entrenched.

In the U.S. right now, 222 biomass power incinerators are belching out asthma-inducing particulate matter, spewing climate-busting greenhouse gases, and devouring millions of acres of forests. Bad? Yes. Too late? Heck no!

Roughly another 200 more of these monstrosities have been proposed across the nation in recent years. If these are built, only then will it be too late to clean up the biomess. The role of the anti-biomass movement is simple: to stop as many of those facilities as possible—if not all of them—from being built.

If biomass busters wanted to follow the failed mainstream environmental movement’s playbook, here’s what we’d do:

1) Assume it’s inevitable that most of these incinerators will be built; 2) Take an arbitrary position of advocating for slightly better pollution controls, slightly higher efficiency, and/or slightly smaller facilities; 3) Come up with “sustainability standards” for converting forests into fuel.

But what do we do if we actually want to win?

A Strategy for Victory 

What if every organization and activist opposing biomass incineration united on a common front? And truly, knowing the threats to human health and the environment caused by biomass energy, wouldn’t anything other than an agreement to “oppose all industrial, commercial and institutional burning of biomass and biofuels for energy” simply be unscientific, arbitrary, and uninspiring?

“Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders,” wrote David Brower, the man who revolutionized the Sierra Club in the 1950’s, who later went on to found Friends of the Earth.

More of Brower’s perspective on advocacy: “Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function.”

The anti-biomass movement in the U.S. is made up of many informed, skilled, and dedicated individuals who are deeply concerned about the plague of dirty biomass incinerators erupting all over the country (and the world), masquerading as clean energy. Some of us have a national focus, others work regionally or statewide, while others engage locally. We organize our communities for grassroots political action, document and share information and resources, lobby elected officials, engage in direct action, involve ourselves in public relations and media work, compile reports, litigate, and so much more.

Our movement is a rare one — unlike any that has ever existed — with nearly unlimited potential for growth and support, as our cause falls smack dab in the sweet spot of advocacy for public health, the climate, forests, watersheds, environmental and economic justice.

And right now it stands at a crossroads. Do we take the steep and sometimes rocky path that victorious grassroots movements throughout history have taken? Or do we choose the easy and well-worn path of defeat that nearly every other failed movement has taken over the years, simply because it’s familiar?

To join the national Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, go to energyjustice.net/platform.

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