Reflection 80: Derailing Change — Domestication and Marginalization

When it comes to social change work in the larger culture, one thing I have noticed over the years is a process that I call domestication and marginalization.

Here’s how it works.

Really good people, concerned about an important issue, create an organization to implement a meaningful change strategy. At times, I have been one of those people. At other times, I have been a member of the organizer’s core group of activists.

At the beginning, hopes are high.

“This can work. We have a great idea and a terrific group of supporters.”

But then, all too soon and with depressing predictability, the process I refer to as domestication and marginalization begins to take hold and deepen:

  • A softening of the message to make it palatable to more mainstream funders;
  • New Board members – “non-ideological” experts – who counsel “smart” mainstream strategies that any savvy organization would “of course” adopt to ensure more money, media attention, and access to those in power.
  • An ebbing of the original, bold mission as jobs at the organization become careers and their occupants income, benefits, and marketability to potential future employees increasingly infect their choices.

Domestication and marginalization are thoroughly embedded in our taken for granted ways of operating and, precisely for this reason, the depth and power of their impact is all too easy to overlook. The reality? These processes are hiding out in plain sight, so to speak; the special province of the reasonable, measured, articulate and “sincerely concerned” people who (often unawares) are crafting the strategies and choices that create these outcomes.

In past writings I have argued this process has increasingly become the preferred tool for derailing potentially transformative change efforts. And that is precisely because them seem so benign, especially as compared to more overt forms of repression. But make no mistake about it. As tools to keep us rooted in our status quo ways of operating, they are chillingly effective.

In her brilliant and passionate book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2013), Naomi Klein does the hard work of teasing out the specific, detailed mechanisms that have resulted in so much domestication and marginalization within the climate change movement.

Here are key examples of her analysis, quoted at length from her book. As you read them, please keep in mind that these same processes are at work – in the media; in our religious institution; in our colleges and universities; indeed, in virtually every sector of the culture that seeks to influence the conversation and choices that, cumulatively, will mold our future.


“The Environmental Defense Fund has always insisted that it does not take donations from the companies with which it forms partnerships— that, writes EDF senior vice president for strategy and communications Eric Pooley, ‘would undermine our independence and integrity.’ But the policy doesn’t bear much scrutiny.

For instance, one of the EDF’s flagship partnerships is with Walmart, with whom it collaborates to ‘make the company more sustainable.’ And it’s true that Walmart doesn’t donate to the EDF directly. However, the Walton Family Foundation, which is entirely controlled by members of the family that founded Walmart, gave the EDF $65 million between 2009 and 2013. In 2011, the foundation provided the group with nearly 15 percent of its funding.

Meanwhile, Sam Rawlings Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, sits on the EDF’s board of trustees (identified merely as ‘Boatman, Philanthropist, Entrepreneur’ on the organization’s website). The EDF claims that it ‘holds Walmart to the same standards we would any other company.’ Which, judging by Walmart’s rather dismal environmental record since this partnership began— from its central role in fueling urban sprawl to its steadily increasing emissions—is not a very high standard at all.

The heart of the issue is not simply that a group that gets a large portion of its budget from the Walton family fortune is unlikely to be highly critical of Walmart. The 1990s was the key decade when the contours of the climate battle were being drawn— when a collective strategy for rising to the challenge was developed and when the first wave of supposed solutions was presented to the public.

It was also the period when Big Green became most enthusiastically pro-corporate, most committed to a low-friction model of social change in which everything had to be ‘win- win.’ And in the same period many of the corporate partners of groups like the EDF and the Nature Conservancy— Walmart, FedEx, GM— were pushing hard for the global deregulatory framework that has done so much to send emissions soaring.

This alignment of economic interests— combined with the ever powerful desire to be seen as ‘serious’ in circles where seriousness is equated with toeing the pro-market line — fundamentally shaped how these green groups conceived of the climate challenge from the start. Global warming was not defined as a crisis being fueled by overconsumption, or by high emissions industrial agriculture, or by car culture, or by a trade system that insists that vast geographical distances do not matter — root causes that would have demanded changes in how we live, work, eat, and shop. Instead, climate change was presented as a narrow technical problem with no end of profitable solutions within the market system, many of which were available for sale at Walmart.”


“A growing number of communications specialists now argue that because the ‘solutions’ to climate change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of the problem.

After all, if climate change really was as dire as Al Gore argued it was in An Inconvenient Truth, wouldn’t the environmental movement be asking the public to do more than switch brands of cleaning liquid, occasionally walk to work, and send money? Wouldn’t they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel companies?

Imagine that someone came up with a brilliant new campaign against smoking. It would show graphic images of people dying of lung cancer followed by the punch line: It’s easy to be healthy— smoke one less cigarette a month. ‘We know without a moment’s reflection that this campaign would fail,’ wrote British climate activist and author George Marshall. ‘The target is so ludicrous, and the disconnection between the images and the message is so great, that most smokers would just laugh it off.’ ”

Radical Decency’s seemingly simple prescription – to be decent to self, other, and the world; and do so at all times, in every context, and without exception – leads us to all sorts of unexpected challenges. Recognition of domestication and marginalization as well as a forthright embrace of explicit and well thought through strategies designed to neutralize and counter their effects, is a prime example.

We need to understand that decency implicates everything. Not just our substantive mission, but also the ways in which fund and run our organizations, the people with whom collaborate, and the intensely personal day by day choices that will, inevitably, mold our effectiveness as agents of change.