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Conscious Activism

An article by George Taylor

EarthLight Magazine #49, Summer 2003 -- Vol, 13, No. 4

I. the Accidental Activist

Somehow I lived through the seventies, eighties, and nineties without the destruction of our many beautiful ecosystems spurring me into action. Sure, I used to grump as the morning paper reviewed the latest catastrophe to watershed or wild animal, but I was only motivated to send an occasional check to other people whom I hired to do the good work of saving the planet from consumers so very much like myself.

All that blasé grumping changed irrevocably three years ago, when a threat to something I knew and loved intimately turned me into an activist. In February 2000, friends took me kayaking off the Maui coast during humpback whale season. There, in the most protected area for thousands of miles, the humpbacks mate, have their babies, sing to them, and prepare them for the long swim to their summer home in the Bering Sea.

I saw some of the great sights of the natural world on the day we were kayaking, a mile off of Lahaina, on a blue calm sea. You can hear the whales breathing, sometimes before you see them come out of the water. Whoosh. A long exhalation that causes the hair on your arms to stand up and salute. Then the long curved grey back, as the blowhole comes out of the water and you see them spouting. Silky and massive in its great sheath of skin, a mother whale looks at you. There’s some intelligence in that grey eye that you don’t forget easily.

In her grey majesty, she slides through the water and turns towards your kayak. You hope she knows you are there when she slips under your little boat. You see her graceful mammalian body twenty feet under you, through the still blue green water.

Then my friend says, "Did you know about Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS), a surveillance system the U.S. Navy tests in these waters, a huge sound used to detect enemy submarines?" She tells me of the baby whales separated from their mothers, of whole pods of whales leaving the protection of the islands for the dangerous currents and predators of the open ocean.

Something is radically wrong in the Maui channel, where the Navy has tested this loud loud system, and the Navy says, "Don’t worry. Be Happy." A bad feeling rises up in my body and says, "This is a bad thing, and must be stopped." I begin helping my friend distribute informational videotapes she had made.

Then a few months later, I met with friends in Marin county who had been in Hawaii and felt the same thing—something must be done to protect whales and other sea life. That connection led to "Seaflow: Protect our Living Oceans," an eco-group focusing on protecting sea life from man made sound, and LFAS. The three of us started a classic citizen lobbying campaign.

In two and a half years, we have mobilized tens of thousands of letters to decision makers; our website gets thirty thousand hits a month; we have sponsored over one hundred public meetings, and we have gone to a lot of meetings. A lot of meetings. We have brought the public will to bear on federal court cases, national legislation, and U.S. Department of Commerce hearings, and we have inspired thousands of people to "protect our living oceans."

Seaflow organizers have deliberately used a model of lobbying which focuses on spirituality, creative arts, and respect for all parts of the web of life. We have attracted many committed and brilliant eco-activists to our cause, and they have been the backbone of our organization, educating and inspiring others, one citizen at a time, to aid our natural world.

II. What We Have Learned:
What Makes a Grass Roots Group Effective?

The key of course is magnetizing and mobilizing people. Acknowledging that this study is a work in progress, I’ll present some of the things that we have learned about creating community and transforming culture and individuals.

Mission and Purpose

People joining an organization want a feeling of purposefulness. They want to align their volunteer work with a clear mission. Seaflow’s mission supports an inspiring idea shared by most great religions: Offering care and stewardship to the web of life. We affirm the interconnection of all beings, and make room in our hearts for the whole world, even people we may disagree with. (Not always an easy task!)

Opening our hearts and minds to people whose policies we disagree with becomes a spiritual practice of non-judgement and inclusion. An inclusive philosophy assuages one of the main problems for activists: constant anger leading to burnout. Seaflow focuses on love and connection, not opposition.

Our short term mission has been to stop the Navy sonars, but following the natural flow (so to speak) has lead our organizing into related issues: the threat posed by other manmade sounds in the ocean (diesel motors, geologic surveys, oil exploration) leads naturally to the need for international monitoring of sound in the ocean. Recently the U.S. Department of Defense assault on our environmental laws has forced us to educate people about legislation in Congress. Finally many activists are concerned about how the U.S. Patriot Act is effecting citizens’ right to gather and lobby without interference.

The interconnectedness of all things is right in front of our eyes. No environmental issue is separate from any other, or from any issue of justice. As we passionately pursue our cause, we are inevitably drawn into deeper connection with the world, which needs our love and attention. We find that a central tenet of Buddhist thought is correct; paying attention does lead to compassion.

Leadership and Power

Most people in any large organization I have seen are either very frustrated or depressed and unengaged. Why do organizations create these effects on people? People’s natural creativity is often quashed by painful power and communication dynamics that inhibit their natural genius.

Dee Hock, world famous businessman and one of the creative forces behind the Visa card, said, "The most abundant, least expensive, most under-utilized and frequently abused resource in the world (is) human ingenuity." ("The Chaordic Organization," World Business Academy Perspectives, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1995. p.4.)

An organization interested in transforming the world must actively study the mechanisms of power and communication within the group itself. Organization leaders must not only assure that human ingenuity, vitality, and commitment are being generated, but we must also prevent old styles of power and leadership from causing more damage.

Many of us have been hurt by autocratic rulers who "knew the way" and who imposed their will on us. These leaders used power and pressure to get what they wanted. Fortunately, within the business community, new visions of leadership are emerging. From Dee Hock, again, "True leaders...symbolize, legitimize, and strengthen behavior in accordance with the sense of the community (and) enable its shared purpose, values, and beliefs to emerge and be transmitted." ("The Art of Chaordic Leadership." Leader to Leader No. 15, Winter 2000.)

Doesn’t this definition describe the leaders we want? Leaders who can further the shared purpose and values of a group, who can articulate its unspoken hopes and values and move people to action through that process?

Questions of leadership move naturally to decision making. Alternatives to making decisions by voting have been around for decades. Judith Bell, MS, an internationally known organizational development consultant, said, when she was teaching the Seaflow board an advanced form of consensus, "I’ve seen many organizations vote to do something, then the project got held up at the desk of someone who felt like he wasn’t listened to, or that he was railroaded to make a group decision. In alternative forms of consensus, everyone has to approve of a project and mean it. The group may take longer to make a decision, but it is one that the whole group can stand behind."

Seaflow’s use of Bell’s model has helped us listen carefully to all the voices on the board, and arrive at decisions which everyone could agree on. At times it has made delays necessary, but we have agreed to speak as one voice, and not to proceed unless group agreement has been reached. We have learned that much of the urgency behind apparently time-bound decisions has nothing to do with the time or the decision, but comes from inner anxieties which need exploration. Such honest inquiry furthers group creativity.

Communication and Community

The Dee Hock quote about leadership implies that you need a strong community to have a true leader. How does that happen? First, through explicit statements of intention. One of Seaflow’s primary purposes is to create a community of activists who not only love the Earth and work for its healing, but know and respect each other. We humans, we activists, are parts of the web of life, too. The organizers of Seaflow have felt that the relationships within our working group were as important as the products of the group: letters, events, media outreach, etc.

Focusing too much on exterior goals can actually be dangerous. Witness the fragmentation of the peace movement after the Iraq war ended. If your mission is "Stop the War," and the war starts, where are you? There is incredible military and economic pressure behind imperialism, national security, and LFAS. This will not be an easy struggle convince Congress and the military that security actually must include the complex ecosystems which support our lives.

So we come to another powerful spiritual belief: to be unattached to the outcome of our results. We work wholeheartedly to preserve what we love, but we don’t know if we will succeed. We want the Navy to stop blasting whales and other sea life with dangerous sound, but it may take a long time to stop this technology.

How can I maintain my enthusiasm and commitment in the face of potential defeats, without a band of allies to weep with and to plan with? Community building must be seen as a basic form of "productivity," although it seemingly takes away from all the "important stuff" that fills our meeting agendas.

Seaflow has taken three general approaches to community building:

Open Lines of Communication

Using Marshall Rosenberg’s model of Nonviolent Communication, the Seaflow board members have endeavored to resolve conflicts through communication which leads to insight and understanding. We strive, with less than perfect success, to deeply listen to the needs of others, to clarify what each person feels during conversations, and to express clearly what we need. These rules seem so basic, but they are hard to practice as we try to implement them in daily life decisions and actions. When our volunteers actively buy into this value, we can support each other in fulfilling it.

Once when I was driving with Vickie, a Seaflow volunteer, home from a long day of tabling at a conference, I had a brainstorm about the next project I wanted her to do, writing a letter to a congressperson. I mentioned it to her, and she said she didn’t want to do it.

After a few minutes more of driving, I felt this strong desire again to have this task accomplished, and I repeated my request.

Vickie looked at me and said, "I feel really pressured by you."

Using basic awareness skills, I realized how tight my own body felt, and how suddenly there was an edge of anger or tension in the car, when we should have been feeling great about working together successfully.

I said, "I guess I want this project done and I don’t know how I can do it."

I noticed my own internal stress, a conflict between thinking this project was important, and believing that I couldn’t do it myself. I explained this to my friend, and added, "My own conflict made it hard to listen to what you were saying."

Vickie calmed down and said, "I just want to work for Seaflow doing things that are in my skill base and in my own timing, and writing that letter needs to be done right. That’s why I said no." Suddenly the atmosphere in the car was cooperative again.

After a few more minutes, I realized that she had taught me a lot about working with volunteers (and my own internal urgency) and I thanked her for her truthfulness. Vickie had helped me to see how easy it is to pressure volunteers to meet the needs of the group, and have them feel disempowered, when they do something that they don’t really want to do.

Using Art and Ritual

At meetings and events, Seaflow has utilized inspirational group processes: simple rituals, prayer, meditation, music, and poetry. These processes connect people to each other and provide an antidote for oftentimes painful and depressing information about our environmental devastation.

Embracing Diversity

There are many forms of diversity: racial, intellectual, spiritual. Our own group has grappled with the question of identity; should we be a spiritual eco-group, or an ecology-minded spiritual group? Which one will be more effective in bringing change to our troubled planet? Listening intently to diverse opinions on purposes, possible actions, and outcomes hones the group mind and provides data leading to better decisions. Plus, if we want to engender deep respect for the web of life (a fundamental principle of our organization) then all members of the organization should actually feel that respect themselves.

III. Conclusion: A Truly Revolutionary Organization

Has anyone been part of an organization that truly unleashes the creative potential of its members?

Fortunately, new models, drawn from biology, are being developed for organizations. Many of these models recognize the importance of empowering creativity and leadership from all its members or employees. Donella Meadows in "A New Kind of Organization Based on Purpose and Principle," states, "(These organizations)...operate not on hierarchies of authority, but through networks of equals. It isn’t power or coercion that makes them effective, rather its clear shared purpose, ethical operating principles, and responsibility distributed (to every person.)" (Donella Meadows, The Global Citizen, December 23, 1999.)

Organizations of this nature do not recreate antiquated power relationships, nor do they operate with painful, indirect communication dynamics. Here are a couple of examples.

A friend Jack, an organizational consultant in Northern California, tells a story from the huge street protests in San Francisco as the Iraq war started up in the Spring of 2003. "Fifty activists had locked arms in front of a huge conglomerate, on Market Street, and the police were picking us up one by one and arresting us. It was getting tense, and I could feel our solidarity flagging. The police were two people away from me and I was getting scared. Just then, a marching band came up, twenty marchers strong. They imposed themselves between the police and us, and started playing marching band tunes and great jazz from the forties. It was the exact right thing to do. We felt solidarity again, the incredible support from our brothers and sisters. After I was released, I saw the band again, three hours later. They had made a big circle and in the middle of thousands of people, literally, and police, and sirens, they were having a meeting. It blew me away. I listened while everyone spoke about their concerns, and the next place in the protest they would go to play. In the middle of chaos, they took time to hear from everyone. Maybe it was in that listening process, that the plan was made which was so timely for our group three hours earlier. They were so in tune. Boy, that taught me a lot about group decision making."

Another, more prosaic example describes a similar unleashing of group creativity.

Larry Butler, organizational development consultant from Victoria, B.C., said of volunteers at the Junior Chamber of Commerce, "Volunteer groups would come to meetings and tell us ideas that they had come up with, and we’d say, "Sure, have at it." We often thought that they could never gather the resources and money and time to do them. But often they’d surprise us. One year they came up with a holiday party for handicapped kids, Operation Wheelchair, that eventually involved a party, nurses aides, and drivers. On a budget of $100, the volunteers had a party for ninety kids involving over two hundred adults. Their commitment to the kids carried them over amazing obstacles."

Saving the world will take an aroused citizenry, mobilized into powerful groups advocating for change. Constructing these groups is a deliberate act, requiring much attention to group process, as well as to desired outcome and planning. Let’s work together to fashion these revolutionary organizations, liberating the power and creative potential within each human. We can build organizations which will create the leaders of the future.

latest news:

As EarthLight goes to press, a federal court has just handed down its decision in the case against the U.S. Navy. In a resounding victory for whales and other marine mammals, the court ruled that it will bar the Navy from deploying its high-intensity LFA sonar system across most of the world’s oceans.

The LFA (Low Frequency Active) sonar system would have blasted hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean habitat with noise so intense it can maim, deafen and even kill whales. In her historic ruling, Judge LaPorte agreed with Natural Resource Defense Council that the sonar’s booming noise could "irreparably harm" the marine environment and threaten the very survival of endangered populations of whales, sea turtles, and other marine species.

ALERT: As encouraging as this news is, right now, the Bush administration is trying to get exemptions for the Navy from some of the very environmental laws NRDC used to block deployment of the LFA system.

For more information, updates, and a monitoring of the Bush administration’s record on environmental issues, contact the Natural Resources Defense Council at; 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011; (212) 727-2700.

RESOURCE: In a must-read interview with journalist Bill Moyers in Grist magazine entitled "Now Hear This," Moyers speaks his mind on Bush-brand environmental destruction. In that interview, he states: "The administration has married the conservative dogma of the religious right to the corporate ethos of profits at any price. And the result is the politics of exploitation with a religious impulse." Go to For a hard copy, send $1.00 to EarthLight.


George Taylor is a licensed California Marriage and Family Therapist who wrote Talking with our Brothers, a nationally known book about group process. He is co-founder and board president of Seaflow: Protect our Living Oceans. He consults with non-profits and small businesses about issues of leadership and mission.


    Dee Hock, author of Birth of a Chaordic Age. Go to

    Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. Go to

    Seaflow, Protect Our Living Oceans: (415) 454-4443. Go to

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