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How Science Can Predict Where You Stand on Keystone XL

Want to make sense of the feud between pipeline activists and "hippie-punching" moderates? Talk to the researchers.

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
MLK Jr and Malcolm X
The moderate (MLK Jr.) and the radical (Malcolm X): Who was more effective? Wikipedia Commons

LET US NOW return to the Keystone debate. If you'll recall, the moderates' instincts tell them that activists create backlash that interferes with the movement's wider goals, whereas the activists believe their protests create space for, at minimum, the achievement of more moderate goals. So which side is correct?

To answer that question, we have to turn to a different body of research: the study of "radical flank effects" in social movements. Perhaps the most seminal work on the matter was Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954-1970, a book published in 1988 by Herbert Haines, a scholar at the State University of New York-Cortland. Haines argued, provocatively, that radical groups like the Black Panthers and individuals like Malcolm X actually helped make space for a series of moderate successes (led by Martin Luther King Jr.) that culminated in the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Herbert Haines argued that the "radical flank" helped create  conditions that allowed the moderates to enact key civil rights legislation.

Haines called this a "positive radical flank effect" because it led to a beneficial outcome for civil rights. But he also raised the possibility of "negative radical flank effects"—indeed, a delayed civil rights backlash had kicked in by the early 1970s. But overall, he argued, the presence of the radicals and their growing prominence helped create favorable conditions for the moderates to push important legislation.

The radical flank concept now "has a lot of credibility among social-movement scholars," says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who studies climate change (and the people who claim it isn't real). The concept has since been applied to political movements and moments ranging from women's rights to the New Deal.

Some of Haines' observations sound entirely relevant to today's environmental moment. For instance: "Radicals specialize in generating crises which elites must deal with"—Keystone anyone?—"while moderates specialize in offering relatively unthreatening avenues of escape." In other words, it's a symbiotic relationship: The moderates are more attractive for the power brokers to negotiate with, Haines writes, "but all the more so when more militant activists are applying pressure."

The sad irony here is that the activists don't get what they want. In the end, they merely get to help out the moderates. But that's the nature of the positive radical flank effect.

For this article, I asked several sociologists and specialists on movements—Haines included—how one might apply the radical flank theory to the current environmental movement. Short answer: It's tough without the benefit of hindsight. "It's easy to do when you look over the course of history, but when it's right in the moment, it's really complex," explains Jules Boykoff, a specialist on social movements at Pacific University in Oregon.

The definition of "radical" hinges entirely on what society considers mainstream—and that's a moving target.

First, it is important to acknowledge, as Haines did, that the definition of "radical" hinges entirely on what society considers mainstream—and that's a moving target. The tactics of radicals vary greatly, too—in this context, the peaceful anti-Keystone movement hardly counts as extreme.

But certain scholarly considerations may prove illuminating. For instance, one of the critical factors in determining whether a radical flank effect will be positive or negative is the way moderates and activists relate to one another. "How clearly are the moderates and radicals differentiating themselves?" asks Carleton College's Devashree Gupta. This, as Gupta notes, shapes media coverage and the thinking of politicians and policymakers who may be calculating whether helping the moderates will ease the headaches the radicals create for them.

It is noteworthy that as the Keystone XL pipeline protests have heated up, environmental organizations have not differentiated themselves clearly. Indeed, the leaders of typically moderate groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote a letter to President Obama in 2011 noting that "there is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone Pipeline and those of the very civil protesters being arrested daily outside the White House."

A second major consideration involves policy momentum. Here, the question is whether all sides agree that change is coming anyway. If so, a positive radical flank effect is more likely, as the status quo comes to envelop and embrace moderates (and spurn radicals). "For a positive effect to happen," Haines explains, "what you kind of have to have is things moving in the right direction politically. So around environmentalism, it would have to be that policy is already moving in a pro-environmentalist direction, like civil rights was, and the radicals come along and give it a boost."

"If you've got a radical flank and a very polarized environment," says Haines, "more-militant stuff…can become a weapon that the other side uses."

Are things moving that way? That's incredibly difficult to discern at the moment. Climate progress is clearly in congressional limbo. But culturally, you could say that there is indeed momentum as the public awakens to the reality of increasingly extreme weather, and even the Wall Street Journal is publishing op-eds supporting a carbon tax. There is also positive momentum in the sense that Obama clearly wants to do something for his environmental legacy, and there is still much he can do without cooperation from Congress.

Finally, any radical-flank analysis must consider the possibility of backlash. In a sense, that backlash has already happened, as the political right has taken up Keystone XL as a case study in environmentalists wanting to kill jobs. Haines cautions: "If you've got a radical flank and a very polarized environment, where there's no real concept or impulse to compromise on the other side, then not only is more-militant stuff less likely to encourage progress, but it can become a weapon that the other side uses."

In other words, the jury is still out on whether the Keystone protests will encourage positive action on climate—so it's awfully premature to be calling the strategy "boneheaded." Mobilizing thousands of people, drawing massive media attention, perhaps redefining environmentalism—these are all actions that, even if they do produce some backlash, will assuredly have myriad other effects that are difficult to foresee.

But the protesters might also take a gut check from this analysis: Their success is far from certain. And most galling, from the vantage point of history, their "success" may well be defined by their failure on the specific issue they care most about. It is not hard to imagine, for instance, an outcome that would be the very definition of a positive radical flank effect: Obama approves Keystone and simultaneously announces a number of initiatives long desired by centrist environmental organizations. Chief among them: new steps by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

The activists would be bitterly disappointed, of course, but progress would be real and tangible. In this context, would Van Jones be wrong in saying that "activism works"?

Calling the mobilization of thousands of people around climate action "boneheaded" is, well, just that. 

TO SUM THINGS UP, we've seen that there is likely a deep seated, emotional and dispositional reason why some people wind up as activists and others as moderates. Perhaps the rift between the Noceras and the McKibbens of the world will make more sense—and even, perhaps, be diminished—if we can all accept the fact that enviros on both sides of the Keystone protests are feeling their way to their opinions.

Second, the study of social movements suggests that both outcomes—progress and backlash—can occur simultaneously, and the activists might well win by losing (or, if you prefer, lose by winning). Given all of the complexities, calling the mobilization of thousands of people around climate action "boneheaded" is, well, just that. 

In the final analysis, it's hard not to admire what McKibben and his supporters have pulled off. We don't yet know which way the radical flank effect will go, but until fairly recently, there wasn't even a flank to discuss. "The reality is that we've had no radicals so far, until Bill McKibben," says Oklahoma State's Riley Dunlap. McKibben has thrown the switch, and now the gears are turning, to uncertain end.

As we wait for the outcome, there's a lesson here for the moderates: Un-jerk those knees. For moderates' actions matter, too, and their choices may have historic consequences. "Whether it's a positive or negative flank effect, we decide that," says Jules Boykoff. "If you diss somebody, dismiss them, use them for your short term gain, you might sacrifice that group on the altar of missing what you actually want to happen."

If the "bright greens" want to be known for nuanced views, sophistication, and willingness to endorse complexity and tradeoffs, then let them begin with this simple acknowledgement: Determining the historical impact of a movement like this one is anything but simple.

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