Is the Occupy Movement a Call for Sustainability?

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This is a guest post by John Friedman that originally appeared on Sustainable Life Media.

For years the American public has professed to care about the environment, yet their purchasing decisions did not reflect this value. Consumers have decried labor conditions, yet sought the lowest-price option for goods. The sustainability community in the United States has long called for a consumer awakening to the fact that each time they make a purchase, they are ‘voting with their dollars’ –supporting practices, governments and policies that they dislike in survey after survey.

As one of the founding leaders of the Sustainable Business Network of Washington, a DC-area based not for profit organization I was instrumental in crafting our foundational documents. Our mission is to work to transform the ways businesses appraise, engage, and enhance human, ecological, and financial resources in order to make the national capital region a better place to live, work, visit, and do business.

For many this is a broader definition of what is needed to be enduring (sustainable) than those groups and individuals that focus their efforts exclusively on environmental sustainability.

That is why I have watched with growing interest as Occupy demonstrations began and have grown from New York to more than 150 cities across the country and around the world. Using social media, I reached out to participants and organizers (I was admonished not to use the term ‘leaders’ as their role was to convene, not to direct) of the various movements. And what I found surprised me.

A True Grass Roots Movement

The initial media stories were somewhat dismissive; focusing on the lack of clarity and focus as the movement grew, perhaps forgetting that democracy is inherently a messy process. When different people come together to achieve consensus they come from a broad range of perspectives and motivations. Allowing all to be heard so that common themes emerge and define consensus is the process in its most pure – and inefficient – form.

“What looks like organized chaos, is in fact, organized chaos,” said one participant. He likened this beginning to many other successful reform efforts in both the U.S. and around the world. He described the synergy of people coming together from a disparity of ideologies, ages and perspectives based on a shared perception that “there is a general disapproval of the way things are. Hopefully it will be inspiring. Our main thrust is to be heard and keep up with the size of our growth.”

The System is Not Working

America was founded on ‘We the People’ and designed to serve the interests of everyone equally. Yet the Occupy movement has come together because of a feeling that, for the majority of people (what they call the 99 percent), the system is not working.  There is also s sense that this is a relatively recent phenomenon – “we’re not trying to roll back the clock 100 years; just 30 years.”

What I repeatedly heard, regardless of the age, gender or location of the person with whom I was speaking was that neither political party nor any ideology was blamed for causing with the problem, or associated with having the solution.

The movement has been born of frustration caused by a continued moribund economy, protracted high unemployment despite government bailouts of both the auto and investment industry in order to ‘save’ jobs and an increasing erosion of the middle class to the point where the divide between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ seems insurmountable.  At the same time, proposals to reduce social security, Medicare and Medicaid in an effort to reduce the crushing deficit as seen as a similar failure of the government-as-safety-net ideology.

The more I talked with people, the more I was reminded just how many successful political candidates have run – and won – on the theme of ‘fixing’ Washington and how disappointed people are that none of them have been able to make the changes. Both George W. Bush and Barrack Obama pledged a new era of bi-partisan cooperation and civility. Bill Clinton said that “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America” at his inaugural address. And Ronald Reagan championed that government could not solve the problem, “government is the problem.”

And yet, nothing has changed, despite calls for change from both sides of the political spectrum.

Capitalism Without Undue, Corrupting Influence (Particularly by Government and Business)

Overall, the Occupy movements agree that the government that was established to be “of the people, by the people and for the people” (to quote Lincoln) has been coopted and subverted by corporate influence.  Ed Needham, a volunteer serving on the press and communications team, expressed the feeling “there is institutionalized collusion between business and governance over the last 30 years.”

Put another way, as political humorist P. J. O’Rourke has written; “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”

One clear goal that appears to be emerging from the movement is representative government free from the corrupting influence of special interests, including wealthy contributors (be they individuals, corporations or organizations).  “It is tough to find people who don’t think that we are living in a plutocracy” – where the wealthy control the system and the system is designed to preserve their wealth rather than ‘promote the general welfare’ (as the Constitution promises).

Increasing Individual and Corporate Responsibility

One of the universal ‘demands’ of the Occupy movements is increasing the taxes paid by wealthy (the top 1 percent).  Shouldering one’s share of fiscal responsibility was perhaps best summed up by Ben Franklin who said that “taxes are the price we pay for a free society.” Surveys show that the majority of people in the country feel that the rich ought to pay more – including some prominent wealthy people.

These are actually the kinds of voluntary contributions to society that are only possible under a capitalist system (rather than a forcible redistribution of wealth by the government which would be correctly considered socialism).

Environmental Awareness

Like any group of people, various agendas are driving people to participate. Concern for environmental degradation is not as prominent a theme as economic justice, but for many, the two are inter-dependent and inter-related. When people are struggling to heat their homes, they are less concerned about the long-term consequences of cutting down trees to burn for heat. When people are hungry, that concern is paramount over any concerns about climate change. But there is a deep concern that businesses have a license to run amok thanks to ‘wink-and-a-nod’ oversight by regulators who are the very people that it put into office through financial support.

Serving as a Living Example

As part of living the ideology they wish to encourage and see, “we’re not getting into bed with any organization. We have to maintain our own direction. We’re not something linked to one political agenda or another. We’re not interested in choosing one social issue organization over another or one.”


The Occupy movement is now over a month old, and appears to be gaining strength and support. The consensus-driven, collaborative, inclusive process includes rotating facilitators (again, not leaders). It is admittedly “messy and procedural, “ but at a time, when backroom deals are seen as part of the problem, it is also reveling in its transparency.

It has been easy for critics and the media to focus on those who are participating for ‘fringe’ reasons – forgetting that there are always those who join participatory events (to be with people that they find attractive or compelling, for a ‘good time’, even to ‘score some really good dope.’) The peace and civil rights movements of the 1960s had similar hangers-on as well, but they did not detract from the moral authority of those efforts.

In this age of reality TV and manufactured political events, what many may have failed to recognize what quickly became apparent to this author – what we are seeing is a true grassroots movement.

I am reminded again of the civil rights movement in the United States. It is important to remember that that effort did not begin with organized marches and speeches but rather in similar acts of defiance – occupying lunch counters and seats on buses – that grew into a movement that transformed a nation.

While leaders and spokespersons that bring forward the messages of the Occupy movement have not emerged, it is likely that they will. As I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC, it occurred to me that our nation was indeed fortunate to have had the kind of dynamic champion for moral justice.  It may be too much to ask for it to happen again – but that is what may be needed to rebuild our economy into one that is protective and restorative of the environment, fiscally responsible, and most importantly, advancing, respectful and reflective of all people.

John Friedman has more than 20 years of experience in public relations and corporate communications. Since 1998, he has been helping companies large and small engage in programs that help drive performance by realizing their environmental, social and economic goals. A frequent presenter and author on corporate social responsibility, John is author of ” The New PR,” a guide outlining how companies must modify the way they communicate to meet stakeholders’ changing expectations. He also serves on the board of directors for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington SB NOW). [Read more about John Friedman, CSR-P]


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