Online and Active

Green Groups Get Results From the Internet

Recently, Naomi Van Tol created a small website to fight for a forest near Memphis, Tennessee. She never expected to get responses from Romania. “I've [also] had supportive e-mail from folks from Brazil, Denmark, and other countries,” she says, “in addition to many responses from people across the United States.”

These visitors to Van Tol's website clicked on a link and e-mailed her local officials directly, urging them to protect the forest from a new highway. So far, their letters have worked. The Lucius Burch Natural Area still stands undivided near the Mississippi. Activist groups large and small have found that the widest of rivers can't match the information current of the web, which has begun to electrify the environmental movement.

Advocacy organizations worldwide have harnessed this power to enlist legions of “virtual volunteers” ready to sign online petitions, alert concerned friends and fire a salvo of electronic protest messages into the inboxes of unsuspecting decision-makers.

For example, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) employs its Conservation Action Network (CAN)—with 16,000 members online in 132 countries—to send objections at an instant's notice to “anybody who has a fax machine or an e-mail address,” says WWF Director of Government Affairs Randall Snodgrass.

Thus far, the two-year-old CAN has logged impressive results. Last year, for instance, CAN members protested a Russian decision to permit whaling for the export of meat to the Japanese market by writing to the U.S. ambassador to Japan and the Russian official who authorized the decision. “In four days time, there were thousands of e-mails and faxes to these officials, and they canceled the whale hunt,” Snodgrass says. “We were doing somersaults because we were so thrilled.”

Scores of environmental groups (including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth) operate similar e-mail networks. Often, the same action alert circulates among several coalitions, with massive effects.

Friends of the Earth (FoE), for instance, united with other groups last year to protest a World Bank project to relocate 60,000 Chinese in an environmentally sensitive region of Tibet. Campaign Organizer Sara Zdeb helped mobilize a coalition of e-activists to “inundate the World Bank with a stream of messages so continuous that, for a while, their fax machines were constantly breaking down,” she says.

Voluminous responses from virtual volunteers happen, in part, because e-activism is so easy. Most messages sent through e-activism listserves include links that refer readers directly to an “action center” on the environmental group's web page. But even if virtual activists aren't members of a particular group, or its e-mail list, they can visit the action center, where they will see explanations of current campaigns.

To take action, visitors type in their zip code, and a pre-written e-mail automatically pops up, already addressed to their congressperson or a relevant decision-maker. Users can edit the message, or simply click “send” to shoot out the letter in a matter of seconds. This ease of use has enlisted a previously untapped demographic of environmentalists who are concerned about the issues but lack the time to spend hours writing letters, says Holly Ross, campaign organizer for The Technology Project.

“A lot of the environmental groups are out there organizing the same 10 percent of the population over and over again,” she says, “but Internet activism gives us an unprecedented opportunity to bring in new constituencies.” Foundations have also realized that the Internet can be an activism magnifier. The Seattle-based Brainerd Foundation, for instance, makes grants to organizations to “take advantage of online networking and related communications technologies.” Groups can get funded to enhance their Internet access, e-mail capabilities and “database enhancement.”

Of course, the accessibility of online activism comes with drawbacks, says Antonia Juhasz of American Lands. “If you flood some person's inbox with e-mails, they can just put them aside and count them,” she observes. “We always feel that form letters and form faxes have very little influence compared to people becoming actively involved.”
FoE's Zdeb agrees that e-activism “is definitely a tradeoff.” But, she says, “If you are able to generate a huge volume—even if they are all form letters—that can be pretty effective in getting people's attention.”

FoE increases its e-activism volume by channeling potential activists to its website through other media. In November, the organization ran billboards in the Seattle area which said: “WTO: What are we trading away?..our forests?” Below this message was FoE's URL in big letters, and visitors to the site were directed to relevant online campaigns.

The effectiveness of such campaigns also depends on whom they target. Interns at the President's and Vice President's offices count e-mails and rarely read them carefully, which means that quantity counts over quality. The Forest Service logs e-mails electronically because it must count them by law. In its formula for interpreting response during public comment periods, e-mails are below letters but equal to post cards.

Congress takes e-mails more seriously. Staff members print them out and put them in folders along with all other forms of written correspondence. Staffers generally won't realize they have a form letter on their hands until they get two or three copies, says Amy Lesser of the Center for Environmental Citizenship (CEC). That means that sending one to your local congressperson could make a big impact, especially if you don't live with too many like-minded environmentalists.

But not all e-activism need target elected officials. The CEC recently developed a feature on its EarthNet page that allows visitors to enter their zip code, write a letter to the editor, and then automatically e-mail it to all area newspapers. CEC's next innovation will be a database that links activists with other people in their area interested in the same issues. “It's sort of like a dating service for the environmental movement,” Lesser says, “but instead of romance, it's issue oriented.”

However, one should never underplay the romantic potential of the Internet. “I certainly date people who have the same values and ethics I do,” Lesser says, “but if our funders ever thought we were running a dating service, there would be hell to pay.”