Sustainability: Is the online activism organization Avaaz showing us the way?

By Joern Fischer

(Tibi’s popular suggestions on improving research performance haven’t disappeared just because there’s a new post! They’re here.)

In a previous post, I have argued that we need fundamental changes in society as a whole to move towards sustainability. This, in turn, will require mobilizing large numbers of people – a goal that, for example, the MAHB initiative stated some time ago. But so far, we sustainability junkies aren’t doing terribly well in actually starting some kind of new global movement. I often feel that there is a lot of talking, a lot of conferences, ever more papers … but essentially, nothing fundamentally useful.

I recently read with interest that the online activism organization Avaaz grew by 2.5 million people in a single month. What do I think of Avaaz? Not sure, to be honest. It’s an online-based network of people, which comes up with petitions for ‘good causes’ (most of them things I find agreeable); then many, many people sign those petitions; and then those are presented to decision makers, like national governments or even the UN. My point here is not that Avaaz is great or not: it’s simply that they manage to grow like crazy, and are attracting huge amounts of publicity in the process. For example, they stated that they now get as much media attention in a month as they used to get in a year. Basically, the Avaaz machine is growing, fast.

What I wonder is whether we could learn something from this with regards to the “ultimate” challenge of starting a new global sustainability movement (bottom-up, because nothing will change if we just hope for top-down!). Two things are different about typical Avaaz petitions than they would be for a global sustainability movement. First, people simply need to sign an online petition without actually changing any of their own behavior. I don’t think that for global sustainability, this will work. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the Avaaz petitions are always on a specific issues. They don’t deal with big underlying questions, but with very clearly defined ‘bad things’ that need stopping. This makes it a lot clearer for people what is going on, what it is that needs to be stopped, and why they ought to join in the effort.

So … a global sustainability movement will not be the same as the Avaaz machine. But nevertheless, I am encouraged by the fact that Avaaz has managed to grow exponentially – because it shows that bottom-up exponential growth for ‘good causes’ is possible. The challenge is to start the right thing, and keep it growing.

What do you think? Your ideas are welcome! We won’t start the next big movement here today, but then again – maybe we will. Personally, I believe that unless someone initiates something ‘big’ in a bottom-up way, sustainability will remain elusive.

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4 thoughts on “Sustainability: Is the online activism organization Avaaz showing us the way?

  1. Hi Joern – I think we can learn from these petition types of activities. I am outsider largely, therefore may be wrong, but what i feel is: they show that people can be mobilized for good things – this is really beautiful. However, this may have potentially bad consequences because (i): they may suggest that a simple ‘click’ will solve problems. It is not that symple – as you also pointed out. (ii) these petition like things, at least as I perceive them in RO, seem to be a bit quick and reactive, and may lack a well built strategy. In Romania I saw hundreds of petitions, and initially I signed them but after seeing that there are no results out of them, I stopped signing them. This can be a third negative aspect of petitions. And certainly, to solve sustainability issues, petition types of steps will be not useful.

  2. I just learned a new word that mirrors Tibi’s comment and describes what is the basis for Avaaz’s success. It’s ‘slactivism’, which is a combination of slacker and activivism and according to Merriam-Webster it means: “activism (such as signing an online petition) that requires very little commitment or action”. Unfortunately, I feel that only commitment and action will lead to a real change.

  3. The Avaaz growth reflects three important things for me: 1) there are many people unhappy with how things are managed, 2) they can read, 3) they already read enough to understand: people need consider a wide array of problems, many of which are not their own (e.g. Syrians, Canadian oil sand permafrost, Mexican drog regulations, etc.). If I am right, a combination of these three things suggests that lots of the Avaaz supporters are too aware of the realities to be slacktivists. They do care, and that is a serious resource.

    • Thanks Miki! I agree with the criticisms that of course, just clicking is too easy. But like you, I think there’s more to it, and it may well be an organisation we could learn from.

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